How does it feel when you hear someone say – ‘This lecture is so depressing’, ‘Sorry, I’m so OCD, let me straighten that up’ or ‘Finals are giving me so much anxiety!’
It probably feels normal. That is understandable given how casually we tend to use mental illnesses as adjectives in our everyday conversations. I, too, am guilty of this. We were not all born woke.
Yes, it is important to be talking about mental illness. I am glad that we are talking about mental illness. It is increasingly often, though, that I see people using a mental illness to describe what is simply a bad day.
Take for example, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). Not only is using OCD as an adjective problematic, it is also grammatically incorrect. Saying, 'You’re so OCD' would mean 'You’re so obsessive-compulsive disorder'. Even Microsoft Word had a difficult time letting my deliberate error slide.
Using mental illnesses to describe regular, everyday emotions gives rise to misconceptions about what these mental illnesses really entail. Depression isn’t limited to simply being sad. Mental illnesses are variable diseases that can surface in many forms. Depression could manifest as sadness, but it could also surface as fatigue, apathy, or even physical pain. Yet, what is the first thing you think of when the term is mentioned? Sadness. And why do you think that is? If we constantly use, and tolerate the use, of mental illnesses as adjectives, we associate the casual meaning we’ve formed for them, more than what they were originally intended to mean.
We cannot let these words lose their meaning. Ideally, we should be able to tell the difference between a quirk, and a cry for help. I would give you a ‘1 in x’ statistic to show you how prevalent mental illness is in Singapore, or the world for that matter. However, no matter the figure, it would be an underestimation because of the sheer number of undiagnosed cases.
There used to exist a stigma around mental illness preventing people from getting help, because they were scared to come forward. There was no discourse on mental illness. We have somewhat gotten past that issue; it is easier to seek professional help, and less of a hassle than I imagine it would have been a decade ago. The new issue, however, is that the overuse and misrepresentation of mental illnesses in our language results in people feeling that these experiences are not out of the ordinary.
It’s normal to have suicidal thoughts. Everyone needs to check their locks seventeen times before they can leave the house. It’s fine that I can’t bring myself to get out of bed.
This isn’t a problem. Everyone says they feel this way.
It’s fine. I’m fine. Even if I’m not, I’ll be fine.
The less seriously we take mental illness, the more it takes for someone to feel compelled enough to seek professional help. How bad does it have to get before one realises that something is off, and life does not have to be this difficult?
Here is a brief list of substitutes, though I’m sure education has equipped us with enough vocabulary to describe how we are feeling when we don’t actually mean to say that we are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness and would like professional help:
Instead of ‘That’s making me depressed’, try ‘That’s making me sad’.
Instead of ‘I’m so OCD’, try ‘I’m such a perfectionist!’
Instead of ‘They’re so bipolar’, try ‘They’re erratic’.
Instead of ‘I’m going to kill myself’, try ‘I’m having a shit day!’
It is, indeed, liberating and helps one to cope with mental illness, to be able to talk about one’s disorders openly and without judgement. However, using these same terms if you are not mentally ill simply dilutes their meaning, and makes it more difficult for these disorders to be understood.
No one is trying to strip you of the right to talk about your emotions. We are allowed to be expressive – but should this be at the expense of someone who is actually suffering from the disorder you decided to have today?
If you are guilty of using any of the phrases mentioned earlier or similar ones, it’s okay. Take this as an opportunity to make a change and spread the word the next time you see someone being careless with their words. And after all of this, if you still find yourself with no better way to describe your mental state than with depression, ADHD, OCD, and so on, then maybe it is time for you to seek help.