Mental illness, although it is a subject that requires more attention, should not be the punchline of a person’s jokes or a casual adjective used to describe and make fun of someone’s quirkiness. Awareness and trivialization are not the same thing. But unfortunately, the latter is the primary source of “representation” that mental illness currently has. Every day as I walk the halls of my high school, as I sit in class, and as I ride the bus, I hear students ridiculing people with mental illnesses.
“Looks like someone forgot to take their meds today!”
“I’m seriously having PTSD flashbacks from yesterday’s water polo game.”
“I swear, she’s so bipolar, I can’t handle it.”
“I nearly had a panic attack when I found out there was a math test today!”
Comments like these are common and even normal in today’s schools. I believe that this is partially due to a lack of understanding, but also due to a lack of care. For those who do not struggle with a mental illness from day to day, it may not seem like a legitimate or serious issue. However, 1 in 4 people worldwide will have a mental illness at some point in their life. And even if someone does not have a mental illness themselves, they may be affected by it through friends and family members. So just because it’s not your problem, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. The matter of mental illness is something that must be addressed, in a positive and impactful way.
Usually, the most frustrating part of my day is hearing someone make a suicide joke, and that happens at least once a day. Any time someone is relatively upset or miffed, they’ll say something along the lines of, “I should just kill myself.” Often this is accompanied by a hand gesture of a gun shooting the speaker. This may occur after someone has just received an unfavorable grade on a test, or before they have to go to their P.E. class, or even just because they are extra tired that morning. I try to veer people away from saying those sorts of things, but they will usually respond by telling me to calm down, it’s just a joke, don’t make a big deal out of nothing. But it’s not nothing. Roughly 35,000 people die each year from suicides in the U.S. alone. Does that sound like nothing to you?
Many people will belittle mental illnesses by using them as adjectives instead of treating them as actual disorders. A common example would be: “I’m so depressed.” vs. “I have depression.” Or, “He’s so OCD.” vs. “He has OCD.” The problem with these frequently used expressions is that it both uses the name as an ordinary adjective, and it creates an identity through the illness. So instead of someone having ADHD, they are ADHD. That is incorrect, because not only does it minimize the legitimate issues of people with mental illnesses, but it also can make them feel like their only source of self lies in their illness. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should only censor yourself around people with mental illnesses in hopes of not offending them. This means that you should always watch your thoughts and your spoken words, because those are the things that determine who you are and where you end up in the world. The things that you say affect everyone who hears them. It’s up to you to decide whether the impact that you have on those around you will be positive or negative. So think about it: How much effort does it take to not say something? Will it hurt you more not to say it than it will hurt someone who hears?
Address the issue. Stand up for yourself, or stand up for others. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose. Because we are all struggling, and we are all human.