“That wardrobe is so schizophrenic. The weather has been bipolar lately. I just killed myself studying.”
I have heard phrases like these more this semester than any other time in my life. That is not to say it’s all suddenly brand new. Rather, I hear these phrases because I’m more aware about mental health and the word choices we use to describe it.
These phrases cut through to my very soul when I hear them.
We don’t often consider how our words may affect others who are silent, nearby, and potentially listening. I know I’ve fallen for this mistake myself—many a time—and I know that it’s okay if I do, and that it’s okay that other people do as well. We’re all human and we all make mistakes.
However, I’ve found myself wishing people knew more about mental health awareness and how these phrases can be like swords stabbing someone’s flesh, rather than just mere jokes and mere words.
I’ve personally been affected hearing these words. They jostle me and catch me by surprise. I’ve found myself gawking at what may be someone else’s ignorance or an unintended joke, but words do have impact. Words carry power.
Let me tell you about my experience, and in the end, I’ll encourage you to do the same.
I’m a junior studying psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston but I’m not graduating for another two years. Sounds about right. I’m an artist; I love photography, drawing, painting, making bracelets, writing, and especially drawing on my skin as of late. I love color. I love nature. I can’t wait for summer, although I’ve enjoyed the bits of snow we did get this year. I’m a Marvel fan, I’ve gotten back into reading books, and fan fiction is wonderful. I’ve got a plethora of positive coping strategies in my toolbox, and I’m a pretty awesome human being (if I do say so myself).
Like anyone else out there reading this, I’ve had my struggles. For what’s relevant, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder back in the fall of 2014. Since then, I began a journey I never would have imagined.
Many people aren’t aware that OCD is a large spectrum disorder. People who suffer from it can have observable or mental compulsions. Let me highlight that again. Mental compulsions exist, too. A person’s OCD can be on legitimately any topic it so chooses. As long as it makes the sufferer distressed and gets in the way of their daily functioning, it will have a grand old time. I deal with self harm and suicide obsessions. That doesn’t make me suicidal. It means I get intrusive thoughts and images about hurting myself even though that is the last thing I'd ever do. It means I’d get so anxious that I might just secretly want to hurt myself that I don’t move from a stairwell for forty-five minutes to “make sure” I’m all right, as if I’d hurt myself while having no intention to do so.
I am sharing this because when I tell people that I deal with OCD, many of them misunderstand and think I’m confessing that I’m suicidal. In the context of the OCD, no I’m not. However, life will always be more complicated than black and white. For all intents and purposes, I am someone who deals with intrusive thoughts about hurting myself and I deal with depressive thoughts of hurting myself. This means I have a real roaring party going on in my brain.
What’s the point in telling you all this? My goal is to show that I’ve been there, too. I have been a student, a friend, a daughter, someone you may have passed in the hallway who was, at one point in time, suicidal. I have been told many lies by the OCD and by secondary depression. At one point I believed them because they were making the most noise in my life and other people’s outside opinions seemed outrageous. At one point in time, whenever I stopped moving, I wouldn't move for several hours. I’ve skipped classes because I didn't have the energy to make myself get to them. I’ve felt like I didn’t belong because I had just been in a psychiatric ward the week before. At one point in time, I struggled deeply, not sure if I’d live to see tomorrow and not sure if I even wanted to.
But things change. Everything changes. And, feelings are temporary.
Much as we use our words to describe distress, to make jokes, and to speak about mental health awareness, everything changes. The intention of this piece is not to shame anyone for the words that they use, but to bring awareness to a serious topic that is grossly misunderstood and judged unfairly. I want for us to engage in more conversations. I want each person out there reading this, who may be struggling, to know you are not alone. I want for each person out there reading this, to know that it’s okay to not know what to say, and that sometimes just being there is more than enough. I want you to consider the words that you use to describe mental health, what words you may be using that perpetuate stigma rather than aid others in this movement to bring mental health to the forefront of understanding.
When I feel stigma, I feel wrongfully judged. When I feel stigma, I feel doubt about whether I’m doing the right thing. When I feel stigma, I feel that I should be silent about my suffering.
No one should have to suffer in silence--especially when it’s an emotional or suicidal crisis.
Our silence only perpetuates the problem. We can be silent all we like, but the problem with mental illness and those who are losing their lives to suicide will not suddenly disappear. Whether we know it or not, we are a community and communities work together. We are all a part of each other’s lives, whether it's an elevator trip or seeing familiar faces in classes. We all have the opportunity to make impacts on each other’s lives.
How have you been impacted by stigma? Have you made one of these mistakes in your word choices while joking with friends or just talking about the weather? How might using different words change the meaning of your statement? Who may we be impacting with our word choices?
My call to action has begun with writing this article. I hope to get awareness flowing for the conversations to unfold. I believe sharing my voice matters, and I believe this issue is too important to sit in silence. I’ve grown this past year, and through my struggles I’ve come out with a stronger voice than I ever could have imagined. I have only dreamed of doing what I’m doing now and in the coming future. Now, I get to actually live it. For that, I am grateful.
If you or someone you know is struggling with any distressing issue, the Counseling Center on campus is available for emergencies and for a therapeutic resource. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (It’s worth a shot, and they’re pretty nice) at 1-800-273-TALK.
Getting help is worth it. Remember, it gets better. Recovery is possible. Feelings are temporary. Someone out in the world cares about you. I, for one, do. Stay safe.