I remember the childhood chant we used to say…”sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. We found in retrospect that this is not a true statement. I also remember my elementary school in the 1970’s. We were segregated, but not by color. There was a “special class” in its own wing of the school, with its own bathroom and water fountain. That was where the “FoFo’s” went to class. We used to hold our breath and walk by quickly, as we believed we would “catch their cooties” if we saw or touched one of them. Who were the FoFo’s? They were the children with Intellectual Disabilities. In the 1970’s we called them “Retards” or “Mentally Retarded”.
We would also use the words “Moron, Imbeciles and Idiots” to describe them. It pains me to type that sentence. “FoFo” was the name we came up with; I don’t even know the origin. What I do remember is we would never use their water fountain or bathroom, as we would “catch” what they had and become one of them. If we wanted to hurt one of our friends, we would say they belonged “with the FoFo’s” or that they acted like one.
It wasn’t until I was in about 5th grade that I gathered the courage to go peek in their classroom and stare at them. They frightened me as they had deformities and looked different than I did. We were never educated back then to accept these “different” children into our fold. There was no inclusion as teachers, and people in general, were at a loss to explain “why” these children were “different” from us. People went to great lengths to hide children with Intellectual Disabilities for that reason.
The children, who had “Mental Issues”, looked much the same as us. We knew there was something different about them and called them “Lunatics”, “Psychos”, “Schizos”, “Bipolar” and such. They went to a school that was just for them, as they were prone to “acting out or displaying” during class and it would interrupt the “normal students”. For this reason, we had little interaction, if any, with the “Lunatics”. Little did I know, back then, that I easily could have been grouped with those children and would qualify to attend the different school. I displayed mostly depression and/or anxiety during my childhood, kept mostly to myself and was for the most part, unnoticed. For that reason I would guess, I “mixed in” with the “normal” kids.
Those who follow my Blogs at www.searchingforgrey.com, know that I actually suffer from five type of mental disorders. Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Type #2, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Anxiety Disorder, and Depressive Disorder. I started to display symptoms of these disorders in High School. At the time, folks dismissed my symptoms as hormonal or typical adolescent behavior. Later as I became involved with Marijuana, alcohol and other recreational drugs, they shrugged off my behavior as being one of the “druggie crowd”, and left it at that.
The stigmatization of mental illnesses in our society is largely due to the fact that those of us who suffer with mental disorders are rarely taken seriously when our symptoms first display. I’ve come to learn and observe that parents of adolescents with mental disorders are often in denial of their child’s symptoms. They validate physical injury or illness, but they ignore or doubt mental illness. Parents may feel their child is “attention seeking” and invalidate or minimize the child’s display of symptoms. For these reasons, many adolescents living with mental disorders are afraid of the stigma they may face and choose not seek help. They do not feel safe and fear people will invalidate them or they won’t find acceptance if they “come out” with what they are experiencing. Many choose to “self-medicate” with drugs and alcohol to numb their symptoms as I did in my teens and early twenties.
I also want to speak to an issue that exists whereby it is common to use mental disorders as adjectives in everyday conversation. Not only does this contribute greatly to the negative stigma those with mental disorders are already subjected to, but also people will say to the mentally ill person “the mental illness is just made up inside your head”. I actually had a nurse practitioner say that to me quite recently. She was very dismissive of my condition as if to say I could easily overcome my disorders if I just had a more “positive attitude”. I bit my tongue, as I was fearful of the disruption, due to stigma, of my relationship with the Doctor’s office.
I want to share an Instagram Post from a young lady named Tarsha Brown. Tarsha is a young woman living with several mental disorders. You can follow her Blog @ www.bipolaroutcasts.com and she is on Instagram @bipolaroutcasts. I received her permission to quote a posting she recently did with regard to the topic of using mental health disorders as adjectives. I am going to condense and cut the swear words out, but you’ll get the jist:
She writes, “You lose friends on Facebook for talking about it (mental illness) because to them it is “depressing”...and how dare you use the word “trigger” because everyone is “triggered” now, but what you don’t realize is that word had more meaning to it, but it has been used so much it lost its power. When we (the mentally ill) say trigger we mean for people who self-harm, commit suicide, suffer with eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. If you want to claim words - it was our word. We used this word and were taught to express the word “trigger” to help establish boundaries. If you suffer the way I do, you realize why boundaries are so important to your everyday health. Yes, it is so easy for you to make jokes about people being triggered, but to us it is not a joke. Our (mental) illnesses are not adjectives...so no, the weather is never “bipolar” you are not acting “bipolar today”. Don’t say, “I stubbed my toe so bad I want to kill myself”. Don’t make light about wanting to kill yourself. It isn’t funny. I’ve suffered and watch people around me struggle with the will to live every day, so don’t you dare make a joke about killing yourself...unless you’ve been there trying to give yourself every reason why you don’t need to be here anymore. You are not “OCD” because things need to be neat and tidy. People with OCD suffer a debilitating illness...These words should not be used to describe things in your day to day life. They are not small words. They are BIG words with history and pain behind them. I know some of you will never completely understand this...how about showing some care and concern toward people like us (with mental disorders).”
I commend Tarsha Brown for speaking out to her generation and Instagram followers about this topic. The truth is mental disorders are valid health issues that are diagnosed and treated professionally. When society uses mental illnesses as adjectives it is extremely hurtful to those of us who suffer from the actual mental disorders. It contributes to our low self esteem, it makes our illnesses seem invalid, or imaginary. When you say for example, that someone is “acting Bipolar” it insinuates that Bipolar is seen as being “volatile”, “moody” or “dramatic”. Bipolar disorder is actually a serious mental illness that makes the person display severe episodes of mania and depression treated by taking Valproic Acid, Lithium, Lamotrigine, Quetiapine, and others, in addition to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychotherapy. Mayo Clinic, “By using Bipolar as an adjective, the extreme struggles the patients undergo with this disorder are erased. It causes us to look at the disorder as being “mainstream” and not taken seriously. Using mental illnesses as figures of speech has become so pervasive in our society that many fail to even acknowledge it anymore”.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports 43.8 million American adults, approximately 19% of the population, experiences mental illness in a given year, including but not limited to depression, bipolar disorder, and OCD. This translates to the odds of you using mental disorders as an adjective in front of friends wherein one in five could be experiencing the reality of the mental disorder. It dilutes the seriousness of the disorder. When using mental disorders as adjectives in everyday life, it is akin to telling someone they have pneumonia when they cough!
Instead of adding to a stigma that is very prevalent today, try opting for an expression that deletes the use of a mental disorder. For instance, instead of calling your friend “Schizophrenic” because they can’t make up their mind, you could say they are acting “moody or indecisive”. For a group of society who already carry a heavy burden, a stigma is an unacceptable addition to that pain. I have learned to use my voice and take the time to educate as to this stigma when I am around someone who is using it in this way. I used to hide in silence, or, laugh awkwardly, yet I have learned that most people respond in a compassionate, concerned way when you approach the topic with truth and education.
I will end with the simple conclusion that stigma against the mentally ill is powerful, yet it can be reversible. This same stigma is a contributory factor towards the reluctance of many young people to seek help for mental illness. We, the mentally ill can choose to use our voice to speak out against things that contribute to that stigma. Remember my moto: “Empathize, Educate, and Advocate” for the mentally ill.
With You On The Journey, Alice