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How Our Use of Language Dehumanizes & Demonizes Mental Illness
Our use of mental illnesses as abstractions or euphemisms in our vernacular to describe violent, frightening, ignorant or morally bad behaviour trivializes and mocks the experience of mental illness.
By Roxanne Sukhan
“Your lobotomy is showing.” – author and social justice warrior, in reaction to Scott Pruitt’s announcement that Carbon Emissions aren’t responsible for global warning.
“Eurorcentric Bipolar Disorder is a deeply ingrained and destructive mindset of whiteness that becomes visible when attitudes of white privilege and settler rights to Indigenous land are questioned by Indigenous and other non-eurocentric people.” – Awakening The Horse People, a decolonization website.
“My phone broke, I’m so depressed.” – random person on Twitter
“It’s schizophrenic in Denmark at the moment.” – random person on Twitter, complaining about wildly fluctuating weather.
“My many multiple personalities.” – random person on Twitter, captioning 4 selfies conveying varying emotions via different facial expressions.
“He was driving like a crazy person.” -random Tweet showing the license plate of a dangerous driver.
“Alzheimer’s Advantage: new friends everyday!” – random Tweet
“Those strands of hair are giving me anxiety.” – random Tweet captioning selfie in which there are fly away hair strands.
I could go on, could fill this page with more examples of the ways our misuse of language contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and vilifying those afflicted with mental illness. You get the picture though, I imagine. Does this seem petty? I mean, none of these people really meant any harm by their choice of words. Besides everyone does it. It’s harmless fun. People oughtn’t to take themselves so seriously. In reality, language serves as an important part of shaping any society’s thoughts and ideology. The words we choose matter and we choose them deliberately, with or without realizing.
Language is a streaming compilation of our lived experiences, conversations, books we’ve read, the media we’ve heard or watched. To a large extent, words represent ideas in the mind of the one using them. George Orwell, in his essay Politics and The English Language, argued “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Orwell believed the political chaos of his time had a connection to misuse and decay of language. He wanted writers — the media in particular — to more rigorously assess whether their word choices and use reflected the meaning they intended to convey. He wanted the meaning to choose the words, not the words to choose the meaning.
Using abstractions in our descriptions seems lazy and invites ambiguity. Meanings of the abstractions we choose may seem self-evident to us, not to others, however.
Stigma means poverty, abuse, addiction. Stigma dehumanizes.
Our use of mental illnesses as abstractions or euphemisms in our vernacular to describe violent, frightening, ignorant or morally bad behaviour trivializes and mocks the experience of mental illness and contributes to the stigma cast upon those afflicted with mental illness. The words we use and the ways we depict mental illness — directly or indirectly — give an image of unpredictability, danger, and maleficence.
Equating depression with disappointment trivializes the experience of depression, which can lead to death by suicide. Equating anxiety with nervousness trivializes the experience of anxiety. Conflating multiple personality disorder with changes in emotional expression, describing wildly fluctuating weather patterns as schizophrenic diminishes the seriousness of these illnesses, which frequently manifest themselves quite virulently in those they afflict. This contributes to misinformation and deepens the shame and stigma.
Stigma means some people will feel shame or fear seeking treatment. Stigma means diminished opportunities, socially and economically. Stigma means poverty, abuse, addiction. Stigma dehumanizes. Our misuse of language, the way we use it to demonize mental illness, dehumanizes. A childhood rhyme used to tell me words don’t hurt: sticks and stones may break my bones, words will never hurt me. I disagree. Words hurt. They have substance, like things. Maya Angelou said that words get onto the walls, onto our clothes, and into us.
Slurring, ad hominem, never does advance any kind of logic. It only advances people’s egos while it stokes their rage. Reading your lobotomy is showing on the Twitter post, a response to Scott Pruitt’s public denial of climate science fact, of an author and social activist shocked me — this slur didn’t seem very tolerant or progressive to me. It felt hateful and ignorant, particularly because I know someone — a family member — who underwent a lobotomy. I remember my uncle — who had a lobotomy in 1952 — as a restless soul, with deep and intense emotions, a sharp wit and a warm smile. He loved red. He loved ketchup. On everything. Even salad. He walked as his form of therapy. For hours and hours he walked. My cousins would often call him for help with their homework because uncle knew everything and had super intelligence. All this, post lobotomy. Yes, a person who undergoes a lobotomy wakes up and is still a human, imagine that!
Using a mental illness pathology to describe racism only ramps up the shame and vilification facing those afflicted with mental illness.
I felt many things when I read this slur among them disbelief that none of the other self-declared activists called out the individual for choosing these words. All of these people, who would tell you they value inclusiveness and tolerance above much else, and no one felt slighted and uneasy at reading your lobotomy is showing? I resolved to write this essay at that moment of reckoning. Why do I regard this phrase a slur? It tells me that individuals who have had lobotomies are evil: an overused word that means morally reprehensible. An individual with a mental illness, one who has undergone this awful, mutilating surgical procedure, has a morally reprehensible character? Why? How? Scott Pruitt has consumed Donald Trump’s brand of ideology-laced Kool-Aid. Drinking this Kool-Aid will make you believe the climate-change-is-a-hoax delusion. How does accusing such an individual of a mental illness advance the climate science argument? It doesn’t.
I cried when I read about Eurocentric Bipolar Disorder. Essentially, the author has misappropriated Bipolar Disorder and conflated it with racism, a morally repugnant behaviour. A chronic illness I have, conflated with the ugliness of white supremacy and privilege. Having suffered the effects of both of these intensely as a young girl, I have trouble with the message. Essentially the takeaway message I got: Bipolar Disorder is a fluctuating from one extreme to the opposite extreme. It is bad and wrong. Also, people who have it are bad and wrong. Using a mental illness pathology to describe racism only ramps up the shame and vilification facing those afflicted with mental illness. It does nothing to reconcile the deleterious effects of racism or address the process by which white people come to terms with and unpack their privilege.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the seventh leading cause of death in Canada. Alzheimer’s Disease killed my dad ten months ago. So, imagine my surprise when I read about the Alzheimer’s Advantage. Individuals with Alzheimer’s and their families suffer social isolation because of the stigma of the disease. To suggest that a disease that slowly eats away at your brain leaves you feeling pleasantly confused and amenable to making new friends everyday contributes to misinformation and intensifies the stigma. No, you aren’t having an ‘Alzheimer’s Moment’ if you have a brain fart, or if something has slipped your mind. To suggest something so ridiculous muddies the reality of Alzheimer’s as a progressive and fatal disease with no known cure.
Think of words as things, things that creep out of our minds, get onto our skin, clothes, furniture, walls.
My parents, like other couples stricken with Alzheimer’s, watched their social world shrink to nothing, as friends and even some relatives turned away because dad’s decline into illness made them feel too uncomfortable. When you have cancer, or some kind of gaping wound, people come out of the woodwork, seeking to offer comfort and assistance. When you’re dying because of an invisible disease that erodes your mind, causes your behaviour to regress, and causes you do quirky, out of character things, people tiptoe around you and behave like flies around a fly swatter. The Alzheimer’s jokes certainly don’t advance the cause of dignity for the Alzheimer’s afflicted and their families.
What we say matters. The words you choose matter. Words hurt, like bricks or stones or daggers: they cut, leave wounds that harden over into scars and lesions. Think of words as things, things that creep out of our minds, get onto our skin, clothes, furniture, walls. Think of words we receive as things we swallow, things that can make us sick, like food poison or other contaminants. Think of words as a form of weaponry. Orwell knew well that thoughts can corrupt words and words can corrupt thoughts. As Jodi Picoult wrote, “Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”
Author Bio: Roxanne, who sometimes uses her Hindi name Shamdai, is a Canadian Indo Guyanese writer based in Vancouver. She has a background in nursing and policy analysis. Her writing appears in Timeline, Invisible Illness and Ask Me About My Uterus. Her cat is named Ginger Baker and he wears a bow tie. Roxanne can be found at dontdrinkthekoolaid.ca.