Not your adjective

The harmful misuse of mental illnesses as adjectives.


Addie Gleason

Mental illnesses used casually as adjectives create negative stigmas about mental health.

By Addie Gleason, Parkway West High School

Pencil moving across paper, I finish my worksheets in class. My teacher continues drawling on, filling a long class period with presentations and puns. My table partner turns to their friend quietly saying, “this class makes me so depressed.” Laughing, they turn back to their work.

Having depression and anxiety, I was no stranger to the ins and outs of mental illness, but this casual mention of depression pulled me out of the classroom mindset and dropped me into a mental space of reflection, questioning and more importantly frustration. Why do my countless hours spent overthinking equate to one student being upset about having to do a worksheet? Why does he get to use mental illness as his casual topic of conversation while I have to avoid mentioning anything for fear of ostracization?

Entering a modern century, people are no longer walking on eggshells around the topic of mental illness. With stores selling books about mental health and celebrities opening up about their own struggles, efforts to make others feel less alone have not gone unnoticed. Celebrities such as Demi Lovato, Micheal Phelps and Simone Biles have all spoken honestly about their mental health.

Despite all of the movements meant to remove stereotypes around mental illness, lying beneath these media developments are harmful comments used in everyday speech. The issue appears to be as simple as one word or phrase in conversation, but the effects are much more damaging. Ingrained into the English language are words such as “insane,” “bipolar,” “psycho” and “OCD.” Even more jarring is people saying “I’m going to kill myself” at any minor inconvenience. Just because we are used to hearing these phrases does not mean they are okay to say.

When people use mental illnesses as adjectives, the severity and struggle of the actual mental illness is diminished. Intrusive thoughts and obsessive patterns of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) turn into wanting to be organized. Flashbacks and nightmares from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) turn into one slightly negative memory. Manic and depressive episodes from bipolar disorder turn into a couple mood swings. People begin to joke about suicide at any minor inconvenience. Suicide is a devastating and constant issue worldwide, being the second leading cause of death for young people according to the CDC. As a society, we hear these words describe normal actions on a daily basis, but know that this should not be normalized.

Some common phrases people use in everyday life spread misinformation. (Addie Gleason)

Not only does this minimize the effects of mental illness, but this choice of language also creates harmful false stereotypes. Even words that do not outright state a mental illness, namely “crazy” or “insane” foster a stigma surrounding disorders such as psychosis, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. Mental illnesses are typically out of a person’s control, so to assign negative connotations to a disorder is disrespectful.

One of the most catastrophic effects of this is how the stigma discourages people from getting help. By continuing to build up the stigma surrounding mental health, reaching out for help and therapy seems harder to achieve. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only half of youth experiencing mental health disorders receive treatment. Continually misrepresenting disorders cultivates an environment in which the unaware carry on thriving while the struggling feel further ostracized from society. In a world where being considered “different” already excludes people enough, using language that discourages those with mental illnesses from getting help is incredibly destructive. With 13% of youth experiencing depression and 4% of adults experiencing suicidal thoughts according to Mental Health America, now more than ever we must change the way we view and talk about mental illness.

Take a step back and listen. As I have noticed, and you might notice too, “crazy,” “insane” and “OCD” are used more often than we realize, but to put it frankly, I’m not surprised. As a society we have grown apathetic to the feelings and hardships of others, and it shows. In order to destigmatize mental health, we need to change our language and promote stronger education about the realities of mental illness. At the end of the day, describing something as “bipolar” or “psycho” is not necessary but rather, a lack of regard for others.

Stop using mental illnesses as adjectives. Mental illnesses are real disorders that affect real people, and these real people are not your topic of careless conversation. Depression is more than feeling sad about one small thing. A minute annoyance is not an excuse to say “I’m going to kill myself.” People do not need to be described as “crazy” just for doing something you find funny. They are mental illnesses, not your adjectives.

Changing our language is just one crucial step on the path to destigmatizing mental illness.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on December 14, 2021.