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Exposure to Mental Illness Is Increasing, but at What Cost?

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The exposure mental health related topics have been receiving, especially over the past year or so, seems to have increased drastically. There has been so much talk in the media about how we can improve our mental health, stories about recovery, and campaigns attempting to end stigma surrounding mental health issues. Recently, I found myself questioning whether or not the mental health media we are consuming is getting it right. It seems every suggestion made for improving your mental health is the same and the only mental illness that seems to exist is anxiety.

When discussing my mental illness with someone who does not know me, there always seems to be a disconnect. If I say that I live with mental illness, most people assume I get worried sometimes or I get sad often. However, this is not the case. I live with psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type to be exact. Being worried and believing there’s a man living in the closet are two different areas of mental illness. It makes me wonder whether the exposure is normalizing the existence of mental illness to the point where the severity is omitted. Have our conversations been destroying the definition of what it means to be mentally ill? Does the term “mental illness” encompass too much meaning, or too little?

Too often, when individuals use the term “mental illness” there is no distinction between diagnoses. Do they feel hopeless or do they see eyes in the air vents? You can’t tell the difference unless the conversation specifically addresses the symptoms. Talk shows, in particular, love to discuss ways to improve your mental health — taking walks, listening to music, putting your face in a bowl of ice water, etc. These usages of the terms “mental health” or “mental illness” automatically assume something like low-grade worry because a walk on the beach most certainly won’t solve a psychotic episode. Viewers start to associate these terms with non-severe versions of mental illness and lack exposure to other versions of mental illness like borderline personality disorder (BPD) or schizophrenia.

Individuals remain unaware of the depth and breadth of knowledge there is to know about each illness. This is why our conversations about mental illness must be intentional and specific. When having these conversations, if you are comfortable, name the illness and casually define it. Give examples of what it is and what it is not so your audience has comparable information. If your listeners are able to ask questions, afford them that opportunity so there is less room for uncertainty. Lastly, hold the media and social media influencers accountable for misusing specific illness names and symptoms to describe something “bad.”

Here’s an example of something I might say to someone when discussing my mental illness with them for the first time:

“I live with a mental illness called schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. It is a psychotic and mood disorder. This means I experience a disconnect from reality and I also have episodes of really high energy and really low energy. I require high support needs on my bad days and little to no support needs on my good days.”

Being more intentional with our words can help bring back clarity to the common terms surrounding mental health. Having this clarity ultimately makes for a more educated society. When our communities are educated on specific signs, symptoms, and experiences of mental illness, it is safer for those of us living with these mental illnesses.

Getty image by Jasmina007

Originally published: February 2, 2022
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