October 10th is World Mental Health Day.
“God, the weather is so bipolar today.” “Yeah, I’m so OCD—I keep everything clean.” “Ugh, she’s a total schizo!”
It’s easy to slip up and use these phrases if you don’t fully understand the damage they do. But please stop using my mental illness as an adjective. You may say, “Oh, it’s just a saying. It’s nothing personal,” but in a world where mental illness is stigmatized, you are adding fuel to the fire and misrepresenting disorders that millions struggle with each day.
Depression is so much more than just “being sad.” Anxiety is so much more than being “a little stressed.” Someone with OCD isn’t just “a tidy person” and bipolar disorder does not mean “having crazy mood swings.”
The more people treat these conditions as adjectives and associate them with the wrong behaviors, the harder those of us with mental illnesses must fight to break stigmas.
When Mariah Carey announced that she suffered from bipolar disorder, I was appalled to hear a close friend say it “explains a lot about Mariah’s crazy behavior.” Mind you, this is a close friend who knows I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder but still chooses to refer to the rapid climate change in New York as “bipolar,” too. When bipolar disorder is minimized to an adjective describing “drama queen behavior” or mere indecisiveness, it makes my illness seem less serious to those around me. My emotions and experiences are minimized or brushed off. I have to push harder against the glass for people to hear me and take my health seriously.
This blatant insensitivity dehumanizes those of us with these diagnoses. I am not an anecdote and I am not a punchline. I am one in 25 adults in the U.S. experiencing a serious mental illness in a year. I have to work at least twice as hard to handle everyday tasks, the fact of which is not very “funny” to me.
When I’d hear jokes about “schizophrenic behavior” 10 years ago, I had yet to be diagnosed with a mood disorder. Still I noticed that these phrases were often being directed toward strong women in business. Later I thought to myself, if I aspire to succeed in my career as someone who actually is bipolar, then what will colleagues say about me?
After watching people apply these “adjectives” to women with ambition, I found that I was afraid to speak my truth as a working person with a mental illness. And I’m not alone. I connected with CEO Eva Sadej, the founder of Floss Bar and a businesswoman who also lives with bipolar disorder. She summed up her experiences in the corporate world with the phrase, “‘Bipolar’ is the new bitch.”
“A frequent reaction I see in corporate culture is someone mumbling things like ‘Ugh, she is so bipolar today’ and giggling after they experience someone becoming unexpectedly upset or angry—especially a woman…I’ve never seen it said about a male,” Sadej told me. “We have been fighting the an-assertive-woman-is-called-a-bitch fight for a long time, and now an upset woman is ‘bipolar.'”
Not only does this sexist use of “bipolar” demean working women who speak their minds, it minimizes, shames, or outright ignores the actual struggles and realities of women living with bipolar disorder.
And while we are on the topic,”bipolar,” “OCD,” and “schizo” are not the only terms to be wary of. I ask you to be mindful of how and why you use the following words: crazy, nuts, disturbed, insane, looney, and screw loose…just to name a few of the phrases that work to stigmatize people with mental illnesses.
There are 171,476 currently used words in the English language. That means you have a lot of adjectives to choose from—so please stop using my mental illness as one.