Stop The Stigma: Language And Mental Illness


OPINION / Caitlin Scanlon

The month of May usually brings warmer weather and some well-deserved time off for college students, but for people struggling with mental illness it has recently taken on a much deeper significance. May has been declared by the United States Congress to be National Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month and, as such, has morphed more broadly into a sort of National Mental Health Awareness Month. So now, in May, it is the perfect time to reflect on how our society at large and its individuals view mental illness and those who suffer from it.

I’m about to tell you something that so many of those I know who have the same condition would not dare bring up to others, especially not in such a public forum as this: I have Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m a “borderline.” Why the hesitance from so many? The stigma attached to this disorder – from those who have heard of it at all – is immense in our society. We’re the “crazy ex-girlfriends.” We’re “psycho stalkers.” We’re all “bunny boilers” like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, probably the most famous portrayal of someone who was attributed with having BPD, though this was never mentioned in the movie and was ascribed to her by viewers later. The saddest thing? Those viewers were professional psychologists and psychiatrists.

The stigma of personality disorders in general, though particularly the “dramatic” Cluster B disorders (of which BPD is one, the others being Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder), is present within the medical community as well. We are viewed as difficult, treatment-resistant patients. We are viewed as manipulative and argumentative. We are viewed as lost causes by many practitioners.

In reality, the major hallmark of this disorder is drastic fear of abandonment and drastic attempts to avoid it, whether it’s actually happening or not. Think of that for a moment: our lives are marked by fear that everyone we care about will leave us, and to many people, that makes us seem like violent monsters, or manipulative partners and friends – people to avoid at all costs lest we take over and ruin your life with our “toxicity.”

When you take all that into consideration along with the hallmarks of the disorder, it becomes less of a shock to hear that 7 out of 10 people diagnosed with BPD will attempt suicide at least once, and 1 out of 10 will unfortunately successfully complete it. A physical disorder with a mortality rate like that would be taken far more seriously than BPD is because of our society’s view of mental illness. We’re problems for society to take care of. We’re dangerous, villainous. Every time a mass shooting occurs, the mentally ill are scapegoated to avoid a real conversation about gun control (even though someone suffering from mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator).

Another admission: I also have Major Depressive Disorder and Panic Disorder, illnesses which are starting to obtain some degree of acceptance in our society in comparison to conditions like Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, particularly due to the ubiquity of antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs] like sertraline [Zoloft] and fluoxetine [Prozac], and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors [SNRIs] like venlafaxine [Effexor]) and anxiolytic medication (benzodiazepines likes alprazolam [Xanax] and clonazepam [Klonopin]).

Despite this, however, people with these illnesses still suffer another kind of stigma: a dismissal, a lack of seriousness with which many people view them. To many, Depression is still just “feeling down,” Anxiety is still just “feeling a bit nervous” – both are seen as something we should just be able to brush off, to ignore, to talk ourselves out of. People with Depression often suffer from a chronic lack of motivation. It is often difficult for us to move, to get out of bed, to get dressed. We’re called lazy instead of people recognizing this as a physical symptom. With our neurotransmitters out of balance, we act a certain way, like someone with a broken leg will walk with a limp, or someone with heart disease cannot exercise vigorously. People with social anxiety are seen as “rude,” people with anxiety are told to “get over it.”

Even well-meaning support can reinforce stigma. I have been given “medical” advice by all means of non-experts saying I should not rely on medication to help me, that if I just exercised more, or got out in the sun more, or tried adult coloring books (one of the more colorful suggestions), or just tried and talk myself out of it, everything would be okay. The lack of seriousness with which many view these illnesses is actively harmful and perpetuates the idea that these illnesses are not “real” illnesses, but personal moral failings.

I could write an entire article solely about the disparaging language we use when talking about mental illness, or slurs derived from mental illnesses. When the weather changes suddenly all of a sudden it’s “bipolar” or “schizo.” When somebody gets upset they are labeled “psycho” or “mental.” The election of Donald Trump has lured a variety of armchair psychiatrists out of the woodwork calling him a “malignant narcissist” or diagnosing him with no medical background save perhaps an Introduction to Psychology class (and I am by no means defending Trump here). People equate mental illness with such negativity that they are used as insults.

All of this taken together makes it far less likely for someone suffering to seek help for mental illness. This is unconscionable. The stigmatization and “de-medicalization” of mental illnesses needs to end, and society needs to learn to see us for who we are – each an individual person, with our own individual personalities and lives, who simply have a chronic illness that needs treating. We are not monsters. We are not “psycho.” We are not movie villains.

We’re human beings like you. #StopTheStigma.

CW: mentions of suicide and stigmatizing language. If you or someone you love is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website to chat online.

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