Crazy. Sicko. Psycho. Nuts. Bipolar. Autistic. Weird. All too often people use words like those as insults and to stigmatize people with mental illness.
“Using pejorative terms to refer to someone with mental illness, it is really similar to using terms to attack someone’s physical characteristics,” said Jack Cahalane, chief of adult services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.
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“When we are tossing about these words to describe other behaviors, it can make people who have these disorders feel very diminished,” said Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Center of Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic. “It can trivialize mental health.”
People often use such labels as shorthand or a way to better understand something that seems complex or scary. Many people fear mental illness even though it’s common — one in five Americans experiences mental illness.
“We will insult others to distance ourselves from the thought ‘Maybe this will happen to me.’ I think we use these terms in protecting ourselves that we could be vulnerable to mental illness,” Bea said.
Also, using a psychiatric term to describe a certain behavior — cleanliness is OCD, for example — makes it seem as if everyone with the disorder acts the same way. This makes it difficult to people to understand and recognize mental health conditions.
“It is an oversimplification of something that is really complex. No two people who have bipolar are going to seem the same,” Bea said.
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“Individuals … with behavioral health disorders are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of crimes,” said Cahalane.
More than a condition
At the same time, it reduces a person to a condition, instead of being a person who has a condition — among other traits.
“There is more to them than just the illness, more than ‘I am OCD’ or ‘I am schizophrenic,’” Bea said.
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When these labels are used casually, people may not admit they are experiencing mental health problems.
“The misuse of psychiatric illness perpetuates stigmas and makes people less willing to talk about issues and seek help,” Sarah Petersen, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Not a weakness or a flaw
And, using mental health conditions as slurs perpetuates the idea that mental illness is a weakness or somehow caused by a flawed person.
“Mental health issues are not well understood. They are not seen as real disorders. They are not seen as biologically based. They are seen as something they are brought on by people themselves as weakness in character,” said Calahane.
The stigma is often why people don’t seek treatment, said Patrick Corrigan, distinguished professor of psychology at Illinois Technical Institute and head of the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment.
While being careful about the terms we use, it’s equally important to be open about mental illness. People feel less stigma toward people with mental health problems the more they interact with people experiencing them, said Corrigan.
“Putting a focus on language really makes it look a lot easier than it is,” Corrigan said. “Changing stigma is a lot harder and a lot bigger than that.”
Having conversations about mental health led by people living with conditions can be a powerful way in helping people feel less misinformed and scared about them.
“The degree to which people come out with their mental illness will really tear down stigma,” Corrigan said.