I never realized how many misconceptions people have about mental illnesses until I was diagnosed with one. It's almost shocking how casually we refer to to these kinds of disorders in our every day conversations. Who among us has never told someone that we are "a little bit OCD" about something, or described someone else's behavior as being "bipolar?"
I want to be clear right now that I am not a social justice warrior who is out to police everything you say. I am someone who has made comments like this in the past, and I said those things because I didn't know how hurtful they could be. There is such a thing as being over-sensitive, and I know that when I hear these things in casual conversation they are almost never malicious or designed to hurt others. But the truth is that we use these illnesses as a form of hyperbole to describe someone who is is moody, capricious, particular, or otherwise abnormal. What we mean when we say these things is that someone is crazy, and we overstate the issue to underline our point. To the people who are actually mentally ill, this sends the message that their condition is one of the worst things a person can be. Ignorant and hurtful comments perpetuate shame and stigma. Even if you think you are just making a joke, you could be really hurting someone.
And while it's a perfectly valid choice to stay silent when something like this comes up in conversation, there is a way to respond without being confrontational or combative. It's hard to speak up in these situations, especially if you are someone who has just been cut down by a friend or colleague's unintentional ignorance. But if you choose to, you can make a small difference in someone's perspective, and start to remove the stigma around mental illness one person at a time. Use these tips to respond to hurtful comments about mental illness with grace and aplomb:
First, don't get defensive. Most people make comments like this because they truly don't know any better. They aren't trying to hurt you, but that doesn't mean it's okay for them to keep talking this way. Lashing out at your conversation partner is only going to make them feel defensive too, and that's not going to make for a productive conversation. Most likely, they would be very embarrassed if they knew how you felt, so it's best to approach the situation with kindness and compassion.
Say something like, "I don't know about OCD. I have a friend who has been diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and that's not really what his illness looks like." By gently correcting them and personalizing the issue, you will remind them that real people, some of whom they may interact with every day and even count as friends, struggle with mental illnesses. In this way, you can point out their error without directly attacking them and give them an "out" in the conversation. This will enable them to save face, while encouraging them to choose their words more carefully in the future.
If they press the issue or seem interested, explain further. Tell them about your friend, and how you think he would feel if he were to hear something like that directly. Explain that people who have mental illnesses often feel ashamed of themselves for something that is beyond their control. You may even have the chance to educate them more about what mental illness really looks like, and how many people deal with this every day. In doing so, they will learn how common mental illness really is, and how damaging their comments can be to millions of others.
Reducing shame and stigma starts with each of us. Whether you choose to take a stand when others make ignorant statements or simply to avoid making these kinds of comments yourself, you can make a difference.
Have you ever been hurt by a casual statement made by someone else? How do you handle these kinds of comments? Please keep the conversation going in the comment section!