Language is everything to us as humans. Without language we could not communicate with one other through speech, in writing or even through our bodies. New parents eagerly await the first words their child will say, if only to finally understand the message their baby is sending through hours of nonstop crying! Our words and our actions convey strong messages as well as emotional reactions to those around us whether we realize it or not. More often however it seems that people have become desensitized to certain phrases or words that have become common language.
Words that once held a strong meaning now hold no meaning whatsoever. When looking at the history to some of these words though, the negative connotations associated with some phrases can be triggering to a number of people, specifically to those who have experienced mental illness or are close to someone who has. These include words like “crazy”, “bipolar”, “OCD”, and “retarded”. Since many people have started using these terms so casually, they have lost their true meaning, invalidating the people who actually have to live with mental illness daily. It seems that ignorance is bliss when it comes to mental illnesses. Many people choose to remain oblivious to the fact that whether or not you know someone personally who suffers from a mental illness, they still exist. The sole fact that 1 in 5 people in Canada live with a mental illness means that absolutely anyone around you could be affected by your microaggressions. It could be someone sitting beside you, who has learned to conceal their depression well; the mother in front of you whose daughter has just been hospitalized with bipolar disorder; or the person in line behind you whose friend died by suicide last year.
The term ‘microaggression’ is usually associated with casual racism, but it applies to other social issues as well. According to psychologytoday.com, microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.
Microaggressions like using mental illnesses and related terms as adjectives trivialize the struggle that a person who lives with mental illness must deal with every single day, whether it be for weeks, months or even years. Clearly not everyone knows exactly what a mental illness looks like, and therefore may not know how harmful their words can be. There is a difference however between being able to admit this and ask for or find more information, and choosing to ignore that fact in order to sustain a sense of self-righteousness. It is not fair to protect your ignorance over someone else’s peace of mind. Someone who struggles to get through their tasks throughout the day because of their OCD is much different from you enjoying having your room neat and tidy. Again, I understand these are things that not everyone may realize (and that’s not your fault), but it doesn’t hurt to do a little bit of research before you start self-proclaiming mental illnesses. Your ignorant statements could be someone else’s reality.
About Deshawna Dookie
Deshawna Dookie is an undergraduate psych student and a mental health advocate. Originally from the Toronto area, she has had her own experiences with mental health as well as being a supportive friend and supporter of others with similar experiences. She also has a personal interest in topics pertaining to the intersection of race and mental health. Throughout her own trials with mental health she discovered a number of holistic methods to dealing with mental health issues and is working towards sharing these ideas on her own website and blog. Until then you can follow her on Twitter and here on HMC's Supportive Minds Blog.