Why You Shouldn’t Use Mental Illness As A Metaphor

And speaking of the dilution of language, I’m going to talk a little about how the language of mental illness gets co-opted regularly.

Sometimes this is done completely innocently, as metaphor. “The weather’s really bipolar today.” “I’m kinda OCD about this, sorry.” “I’m so depressed about the Blackhawks losing!”

Sometimes it’s a little less innocent, as “humor” that implicitly degrades its target: “She’s, like, totally fucking schizo.” “Clinically Depressed Rob Pattinson Cavorts With Models in New Dior Ad.” (Jezebel has historically been pretty bad about using mental illness as a punchline.)

My usual objection to using mental illness terms in this way is that mentally ill people (who comprise a fourth of American adults) are likely to find them marginalizing and hurtful. It makes us feel like the potentially-fatal conditions we struggle with are just a joke to you. It’s not a nice feeling, and if you are a person who generally cares about your friends’ feelings, you should probably be aware of this.

But the dilution of mental illness terms might have another, more insidious effect, and that is changing our mental schemas of what mental illness looks like such that it’s less and less serious, and treating it accordingly.

As an example, I was recently posting on Facebook about the infuriating phenomenon in which someone discloses a phobia or trigger that they have to warn their friends, and then their friends proceed to try to deliberately trigger them. I literally watched it happen, and then I watched the friend post a new status about how people do this, and someone tried to do it again.

So my friends and I were discussing this and one of them mentioned that a possible factor (aside from the obvious douchebaggery) is the fact that many people now use “phobia” very colloquially, as in, “thing that makes me have a sort of uncomfortable but totally harmless reaction that would probably be amusing for you to see,” as when my little brother wants me to taste something totally gross (but safe and edible) or when my mom is like “ewwww look at all this dust that’s built up on your windowsill!”

I think my friend may be right. These words are used so casually that our conception of their meaning gradually shifts without our even noticing it. It’s like a boy-who-cried-wolf type of situation in that regard. If nine different friends joke to you about how they’re “sooooo OCD” because they like all their books organized just so on their shelf (a situation familiar to just about every bibliophile, honestly), then the tenth friend who comes to you and tells you that they have OCD is probably going to evoke that mental image, rather than one of someone who actually can’t stop obsessing over particular little things and carrying out rituals that interfere with that person’s normal functioning, perhaps to the point of triggering comorbid disorders like depression. This may be a person who washes their hands until they are raw and hurting, someone who has to flick the light switch on and off seven times every time they leave a room, or someone who has recurring, uncontrollable thoughts about hurting someone they love even though they have no actual desire to do that.

Well, that sounds a little different than insisting that your books be categorized by subject and then alphabetized by author, no?

Likewise, if your friends are constantly telling you they’re “depressed” because their team lost or because they got a bad grade, only to return to their normal, cheerful selves within a few hours, the next person who tells you that they are “depressed” might elicit a reaction of, “Come on, get over it! You’ll feel better if you go out with us.”

And so the meanings of words change.

But just because the people around you use mental illness terms in that diluted way doesn’t mean you should accept it. If you want to be an ally to those who struggle with mental illness, you should treat disclosures of mental illness seriously every time unless you’re absolutely certain that that’s not what the person is telling you. Feel free to ask for clarification.

I already shared this story as a comment on another post, but I’ll share it again because it’s applicable here. I once ran into an acquaintance and we chatted for a bit. I asked him what he’d been up to, and he said, “Just, you know, getting sober. I’m an alcoholic.” And I said, “Congratulations, good for you!” And he responded, “Oh, I’m not actually an alcoholic, I just meant that I’ve been drinking less. Haha, I forgot that you’re a psych major.”

The latter comment annoyed me because of its implication that I took his seeming disclosure of alcoholism seriously because I majored in psychology. That’s not why. I took it seriously because it sounded serious, because I want to support people who struggle with mental illnesses, and because I know what a big step it would’ve been for me to tell someone I didn’t know that well that I had started treatment for depression, back when I had it.

But other than my brief chagrin, there weren’t really any drawbacks or negative consequences for me in this situation. I faced no repercussions for taking him seriously. I undoubtedly came out of the situation looking like a decent person who cares about people, and he probably felt a little silly for flinging the term “alcoholic” around, but also reassured that if he ever did get diagnosed with a mental illness, I would take him seriously.

Although it may feel that way sometimes, you do not have a limited number of Real Mental Illness Points that you need to save up for responding to people who have a Real Mental Illness, and that you shouldn’t waste on those who are just using those terms metaphorically. The worst thing that happens if someone tells you that they have a phobia and you decide to refrain from trying to trigger that phobia is…exactly nothing. The worst thing that happens if someone tells you they’ve been feeling depressed lately and you say, “I’m so sorry to hear that, is there anything I can do to help?” is that they say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not like, depression or anything. I’ll feel better soon.”

That’s it!

And your taking them at their word sends a message to them that you believe that these words should be reserved for describing the illnesses they indicate, rather than being used as convenient metaphors. You’re helping to set a norm about how these words should be used.

Meanwhile, if you’re someone who uses mental illness terms to describe states of mind that you do not feel are mental illnesses, I’d encourage you to take advantage of the richness of the English language (or whichever language you speak, which I’m sure is also rich) and not do that. (Russian, for example, has some beautiful words for sadness. There’s the general sadness, or grust'; there’s a stronger version, toska; there’s a type of sadness that’s accompanied by an unwillingness or inability to do anything to improve one’s state of mind, unyniye; there’s a type of sadness that isn’t really directed at anything in particular and lies somewhere between grust’ and toska in severity, pechyal’; and there’s a type of sadness that includes grief, but also sadness at the loss of a treasured possession or an important opportunity, skor’b. And that’s a few. And don’t get me started on the Portugese word saudade.)

Note that I’m not including here folks who have diagnosed themselves with mental illnesses because they’re unable (or currently unwilling) to seek help from a professional. If you feel that you have the mental illness known as depression, then that word, I believe, is yours to use.

My point is only that sometimes misusing language has actual harms, and while language does evolve and change over time, we need words to describe mental illnesses. We can’t fight something that we can’t name, and we need to be able to fight depression and OCD without people thinking that we’re fighting feeling sorta down when your team loses or wanting to have all your books organized just so.

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Related: Small Things You Can Do To Improve Mental Health In Your Community