Let’s Talk: The Language of Mental Illness

For those of you who don't know - if you tweet with #LetsTalk Bell donates 5 cents to mental health initiatives, they also donate 5 cents for every text sent from their users - so if you've got Bell or know someone with Bell text away!

“Bad enough to be ill, but to feel compelled to deny the very thing that, in its worst and most active state, defines you is agony indeed.”

― Sally Brampton, Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression

So today is Bell’s Let’s Talk Day (There’s also the Time to Talk Day based in the UK on February 6th, not sure why we didn’t all join forces). I firmly believe that talking about mental health is a critical to improving the well-being of individuals and society as a whole. We have gotten a lot better about talking to mental illness and becoming more accepting of those with mental illness, but there’s still an echo of the belief that individuals with more common disorders such as depression and anxiety are “making it up”/”making a problem for themselves” or that they just need to “cheer up” and “stop worrying.” So we have all these campaigns aimed at decreasing stigma and increasing awareness, but our language shows that we haven’t quite reached our goal. Outside the awareness days, we still often make like if we don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. If we don’t call it depression it’s not depression. There are at least three problems with this attitude:

  1. It hurts to be ignored. Being ignored while you’re in pain and asking for help really is just salt in the wound.
  2. Ignoring it doesn’t actually make it better. If you ignored the fact that your credit card statement was past due, it wouldn’t suddenly decide to pay itself. No, the consequences would pile up.
  3. The silence is isolating and speaks volumes. If people feel they won’t get help, will be called weak, or had their problems minimized, they will often elect to suffer in silence. This just makes the suffering more lonely and shameful. Doesn’t fix anything.

Fortunately here in Canada, we are working to reduce the stigma and improve access to treatment, albeit we are still lacking services and attention in more rural and northern areas including in Iqaluit and the North-West Territories (for more info click here). Even in areas where there is bountiful access to services, almost half don’t seek help (source). But there are many countries around the world where individuals lack access to desperately needed services. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 75% of individuals worldwide do not have access to the necessary mental health services (source). Problem is that as quickly as we work to break down the barriers, we carelessly build new ones.

The language of mental illness is sort of the problem. Or at least the way we abuse it. 

George Orwell

Have you ever been talking to a friend, describing something really silly or stupid or been miffed by someone’s apparent lack of two neurons to rub together and thrown own the R word? What about had a bad day or been tired and frustrated and declared “Kill me now.” or “I’m ready to kill myself.” Maybe when you realized How I Met Your Mother was cancelled or you suffered another disappointment you declared “I’m so depressed.” Perhaps after watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Fashion Show or seeing a really skinny/beautiful person you sighed to a friend “I wish I was anorexic” or labeled anorexics as “lucky”?

I could go on but I’m pretty sure you get the point. We use this type of language so colloquially and inappropriately that we cheapen it’s meaning. We can’t begin to understand the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of individuals with depression if we apply “depressed” to describe our feelings about minor disappointments, such as being unable to go out on a Friday due to homework or shows being cancelled. We make the person with depression feel silly. We cheapen their suffering. By using labels and terms so flippantly we may as well shout at them

I don’t understand you and I don’t really want to

Additionally,our language shows that we frequently forget that people with mental illness are still people and instead label them as their illness. Their label becomes their identity. Which is one of the fundamental grounds for the debate against using diagnoses – they create a stigma, an identity, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. People have depression, they are not only their depression. This distinction becomes more noticeable in cases such as autism and schizophrenia. In my classes they press upon us the importance when writing of not saying things like “Schizophrenics reported…” or “in a study with autistic children…” reminding us to remember their people-hood and say “Individuals with schizophrenia…” or “children with autism…” It may seem like a silly and minor distinction, but I think that this is critical to changing how we view and treat mental illness as a society. Making people their labels makes their illness their whole world, they have nothing else but their mental illness. 

I don’t pretend to be perfect. You would think I of all people would be more sensitive in this department. I remember in high school when kids made jokes about suicide in my class I went to the bathroom and cried from the painful memories their insensitive jokes had dragged up; horrified that they could be so cruel and uncaring. I do try to be more conscious in my use of mental illness terminology, asking myself, “Would I say this to a person actually suffering from this disorder?” (i.e. would I say “I’m so retarded sometimes” to someone who was mentally disabled?). If I wouldn’t say it to someone who knows what it’s like I try to find a more accurate way of describing my feelings and thoughts, and I challenge you to do the same.

I also challenge you to speak out. If you have suffered mental illnesses before, tell the world without shame – everyone needs help sometimes, you wouldn’t be ashamed to tell someone you broke your leg, or had heart disease. The brain is an organ too, it’s part of our body, and it can break sometimes. If you haven’t suffered from mental illness, odds are you know someone who has – go talk to them, ask them about their experience and how they are doing now, give them a hug and an hour of your time. If you are suffering in silence, go get some help – it doesn’t have to be professional, it can be a friend, or even a helpline – but speak up – shout if you have to and don’t stop screaming until someone gives you the help you need. If someone opens up to you – listen, do SOMETHING, and say thank you, because they trusted you with a very fragile and vulnerable part of themselves, and they trust you to care.

“When you’re drowning you don’t think, I would be incredibly pleased if someone would notice I’m drowning and come and rescue me. You just scream.”

― John Lennon

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I’m Normal? Relatively Speaking.

This has been attributed to both Dr Seuss and Robert Fulgham - though I looked into it, neither author's quote directly matches up with this - it apparently is some sort of combination. I like it. And I LOVE my new chalkboard wall!

A long time ago I came across one of the quotes that has struck me the most deeply a quote could strike me:

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

―Jiddu Krishnamurti

It is exhausting living in the Western world. Yes, I realize I may sound like some spoiled little white girl given the advantages of the society I live in. It’s almost like since we don’t have to worry about food to the same degree and we are labelled as more ‘developed’ we had to come up with something else to worry about. And we came up with some pretty stupid stuff in my opinion.

In psychology we love the normal curve, it guides everything we do. When someone is diagnosed with say, a learning disability – their performance in one or more areas must be more than 2 “standard deviations” below their measure IQ. Translation – there has to be less 2.5% chance that you would have scored what you did assuming you are “average.” We judge intellectual disabilities based on standard deviations in IQ. Researchers hope and pray to the gods of statistics that their results fall above the significance cutoff that says that the results they found are unlikely enough to have occurred on their own if they weren’t right about the connection.

That's a lot of normals. Taken from Crave Online Canada

That’s a lot of normals.
Taken from Crave Online Canada

I am now in my second psychopathology course of my university career, and the word normal comes up almost every lecture. We judge whether or not someone has a psychological disorder depending on how “normal” the behaviour is for the individual, the situation, the culture. Which, I bring up not to criticize, it definitely has it’s uses, but what is normal, as I’ve talked about in my cross-cultural psych class, varies.

Surprise, surprise.

When it comes to humans, normal is relative.

With such diversity how can we honestly say what is the absolute norm? (and don’t worry I’m not going off on a History and Systems rant)

But now I am at a point where I’ve really come to question what exactly normal is? I hear normal all the time – normal distributions, normal BMI, normal weather, normal schedule, apparently there is actually a city called Normal in Illinois, and in the 16th century there was a thing called “normal schools” . But we kind of seem to throw normal out there willy-nilly. I looked into it – apparently it is at least partially originating from carpentry in reference to the carpenters’ square, though since the 1500s it has referenced “typical, common.”

There you have it folks, it's also near one of the apparently like 50 Springfields

There you have it folks, it’s also near one of the apparently like 50 Springfields

Fast forward to 2013 and we have a culture where it is the social norm to diet. Where it is perfectly “normal” to say “Oh I shouldn’t!” To a chocolate bar. Like giving in is some massive, and almost daring splurge. I live in a society where dieting is becoming the norm, where a ten year old saying they think they should diet is becoming progressively more logical. And self-criticism is the normal response when someone either criticizes themselves or tells of someone else criticizing them.

WHAT?!?

Any deviations from the norm are sharply brought back into the normal range.

Saturday I went to get a manicure ahead of grad photos Monday, and my manicurist told me about how she had managed to lose 100 pounds through changes to her eating habits and exercise. Which is in my opinion the only way to do it – no starving, no fad diets aimed at causing drastic weight loss, no “cleanses” (don’t even get me started on that one). But so she had done this amazing thing – she still wanted to lose more weight, but she was committed to the lifestyle and massively enjoying it, and weight loss wasn’t her whole life. We talked about how I run and how last week some random person called me a slut as I ran up the canal in my dry-fit. She then told me about how she can’t run outside because people make fun of her too much. And my heart broke. She told me the story of how her boyfriend had to go back and give “two twigs” shit because they were calling her “fatty” and making fun of her. Here is this woman, doing a fantastic thing for herself, and two random strangers felt the need to make sure she knew she was “heavier than normal” in less than kind terms.

I’m not saying that obesity isn’t a problem, but we have to recognize the flip side of the coin exists, and since when does someone being overweight require the peanut gallery to alert them of it?

Can you imagine how confusing it must be for a young girl growing up today? With the flood of diet foods, the wide array  of diets marketed via all possible sources, the obsession with exercise? Young girls are growing up and developing – yeah this means gaining some fat, it’s what triggers puberty – and they are being told to fight biology. Maybe not directly, I am sure that no responsible mother would put their 10 year old on a diet, unless their doctor advised it due to health concerns. But every time their mother refuses to eat something on the basis that it’s too fattening, or they don’t eat carbs, or they shouldn’t eat sweets – they learn. They learn that dieting is normal, and there is no such thing as “too skinny”

And then those with eating disorders are labelled as attention-seekers, because they have pathologised what is the norm. They took it one standard deviation too far. But can you just stop and think for a second how confusing that would be for someone recovering from an eating disorder? They are “normalizing” their eating (this is the actual term for it), and learning what normal, balanced eating looks like, but everything they hear is in direct contradiction to society’s attitudes and belief systems. For every time their dietitian tells them that eating peanut butter is normal, and cake is okay to eat as part of a healthy lunch, there is someone to tell them about some great new juice “cleanse,” or how they have salad for lunch, or they didn’t eat lunch because they were going out for dinner, or how they have to go to the gym because they had cake at the office party. Can you imagine how tough that would be? I can.

Society is the great professor of life, and we are the ignorant pupils, waiting to be enlightened on the ways of the world – who are we to tell the professor off for being a crazy nut job?

I am actually afraid of the day I begin bearing children, which I am told is part of the normal sequence of events for a female in pretty much any culture. I am afraid that I will have a girl, because Lord knows, I couldn’t manage it, I would hate to see my daughter pressured into the self-hate and dieting cycle that seems to be the norm these days. Yes, I would try to be the picture of healthy living, but would that be enough?

What if I had a son? Would that be better?

Not really, society has another set of norms for boys – the rough and tough – don’t cry, you are the strong one norm. If I saw two guys haul off an punch each other outside of a bar, I honestly don’t know if I would really bat an eye. If my nephews come running up to show me their robot they built with their legos I would laugh and tell them it was cool. I like to think I’m a pretty chill and anti-norm in-a conventional-way sort of woman, but would I have such a positive reaction if they came up and asked me to play Barbies? Honestly? Probably not.

From the moment of conception we start gender-typing, and get totally flustered when someone doesn’t tell us the gender. Ugh, I guess I’ll try and buy a neutral present for the shower then. It’s also why things like the story of Baby Storm garner such attention.

The genders aren’t the only normals we have – we have normals for everything – how you dress, how different professionals conduct themselves, how you conduct yourself at different events, how you grieve, how long you grieve, how you handle break-ups, how you eat your food, how we sleep, what is basic hygiene, EVERYTHING. And I mean there’s no harm in the norms – to a degree I think that if we didn’t have norms it would be chaos, there has to be some degree of conventions for a society to function. Except who gets to decide these norms? If someone has to be different for anything to change, how do we decide to give up and change the norm? And what about when these norms make no sense and hurt the members of it’s society?

And this is why I love the quote that started this. Yeah all this emotion stomping, and body bashing is the norm – but that doesn’t make it healthy. Doesn’t make it right. Yes, some of the norms we adhere to actually are healthy, but stop and think about what you class as normal and whether that makes sense.

A few weeks ago I posted at Thanksgiving about how different my life is here in Ottawa compared to back home, and I have realized how much my concept of normal has changed. How quickly I have learned how to not bat an eye at things that in my hometown would have caused significant alarm. How quickly I have given up behaviours that in a larger metropolitan area are almost weird, but in a small town make sense – like saying hello to people as I pass them on the street. Maybe it’s normal, but who’s to say it’s right?

I’m not out to spark some sort of massive revolution, nor am I telling you to go out an hug the homeless people and bring cookies to the bus driver. But just stop and think about what you consider to be normal and whether or not that is necessarily healthy or right. And stop and think if your quirks are necessarily a bad thing.

Also, if you have a quick moment – read this: http://melroze.com/mayjune2012/lifestyle0506/what-is-normal/

This has been attributed to both Dr Seuss and Robert Fulgham - though I looked into it, neither author's quote directly matches up with this - it apparently is some sort of combination. I like it. And I LOVE my new chalkboard wall!

This has been attributed to both Dr Seuss and Robert Fulgham – though I looked into it, neither author’s quote directly matches up with this – it apparently is some sort of combination. I like it. And I LOVE my new chalkboard wall!

Contradictions and Introductions

First off let me just say. I am not a blogger.

Well I guess I am now.

But I am not a writer.

Well I guess that’s a lie too now.

For years I saw blogging as something for the elite. Only creative people write. Right? I’m not an English major. Not even a real Faculty of Arts student like many of my Psych major classmates. My degree (B.Sc.) suggests that I should be a science major. But I’m not. Thankfully, since in my experience, they have the WORST grammar, and don’t really care. But for years I came up with reasons I couldn’t blog. Reasons I shouldn’t blog.

My life is barely even interesting right? But I have a lot to say. I have experienced a lot. Met a lot of cool people. I do some cool stuff. Eat some cool stuff. And sometimes just laze about and do nothing (though given my busy schedule those days are going the way of the dinosaurs).

Recently I had the pleasure of writing a few pieces for my good friend Shauna’s blog (Shaunanagins Taboo Tab – check it out here), and a crazy thing happened. I realized that I could write. I could be interesting. And while 90% of my day at the moment involves working, or eying up food porn, I had things to say.

Things to say about life and death. About failure and triumph. About growth. About love. About food and loving both it and your body simultaneously. About fun psychological facts. About the state of the Ottawa transit system (albeit those tend to be more rant like). About books. About television, the radio and every other media source.

I had a lot to say. And someone out there cared about what I had to say. At least related to death, finances, and eating disorders. And that’s just a small section of who I am.

Who am I? Interesting question.

I am a fourth year Psych major. Stumbling my way through this exciting adventure known as getting a university education. Or four to six years of caffeine fueled all nighters, chapter readings, essays, and labs aimed at obtaining a $40000 piece of paper that says you’re competent in your field. I am in the home stretch. I will get my piece of paper this year. But alas, graduate school calls to me. I intend on being a professional student. But it will be so worth it in the end.

I want to help people. I am a chronic people pleaser. I am that friend that people seem to come to for help. And I love it. I have also survived a lot in my short life. And from those experiences, a desire to help others survive has developed. I wouldn’t say I  have my life fully together at this point. But I figure more out each day.

I am more than a student though. I do have a life. Occasionally.

I am a runner. Newly. Barely. I have walked three half-marathons with my mom, and am now preparing for the Army Run in September. I am also doing Color Me Rad in Gatineau the weekend before with my boyfriend (I finally convinced him to be active OUTSIDE!!).

I cook a lot. When I get stressed, I bake. And yeah, I recognize the humour captured below

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And in case you’re wondering. Yeah I do kind of run so that I can eat like a 18 year old guy. Because my metabolism really can’t handle the amount of food my inner fat person would love to eat. But life is short.

I read. A lot. I love that brief period where you can transport yourself to another world. I occasionally get so into it that at the end of a book there is a brief moment where I feel as if I don’t even know what to do with my life now that the book is over. I cry when characters die. I mourn for the other characters’ losses.

I am a small town girl. My boyfriend calls me a villager. At over 150 000 people, Barrie is hardly a village. We have a Milestone’s, two Kelsey’s, and recently Smoke’s Poutinerie and The Works. And Beavertails. We are not small. But you can drive across the city in about 20 minutes. And before Ottawa I had never even heard of Shawarma. And my high school had precisely 3 Asians and two African Americans. So we are, or at least were, a little small.

What else should you know about me? I’m a crazy cat lady. It was practically a job skill when I applied for my job at PetSmart.

I have been told that this mysterious maternal instinct will kick in any time now, but for now my cat takes priority. But she’s so cute. And all I have to do is look at her and she starts to purr. And she doesn’t have a full on melt-down when I put her food in the wrong bowl. And there’s no diapers to change. No three a.m. feedings.

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The Crazy Cat (Kira)

I do love my nephews though.

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My parents, brother, and nephews (Dylan, left and Riley, right)

I am an aunt. A sister (fun fact – my brother, centre, is EXACTLY ten years older than me. We were both born on February 16). A daughter. A girlfriend. And a friend friend.

So I hear you.

If I’m not a writer, and the concept of blogging seems so lofty, why start a blog? What am I even going to talk about?

Life.

And all its messy complications I have somehow survived. And its deliciousness that happens on random Thursdays. And the runner’s high. And academic adventures.

Call it lessons learned, inspired moments, and cakes devoured.

It’s a pretty lofty goal. But check in every Tuesday and Thursday, and I swear I’ll keep it interesting.