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


It’s okay, to not be okay.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about social protocol lately. What is the normal human reaction to things? Is what I’m feeling ok? I’ve meditated a lot on emotions (clearly. Since I wrote about it Monday), and tried to wrap my head around the public and private emotional domains.

Something that struck me was how cultures around the world seem to shy away from displays of sorrow. We only want the good. And we only want people to think we have our lives together and that they’re awesome, but that isn’t always the case. Life isn’t only what shows up on Facebook. Sometimes things aren’t okay. And that’s okay too.

I find it rather amusing in a tragic way that I used to find it difficult to even tell my therapist that I was not okay. Every time she asked me how I was, I would say good. Thankfully my nonverbal cues gave me away, and I mean if everything was totally fine why would I be in a therapist’s office in the first place? But I am totally caught up in this social script that goes like this:

“Hey! How are you?”
“I’m good! You?”
“I’m good!”

Because to say “to be honest my life is a hot mess right now” would be too much for us to handle. I’m in psychology and I don’t even know if in that instant I would know what to say if someone said that to me right now with a straight face. I say it sometimes, usually accompanied by a 🙂 or “hahah”, because God forbid I be serious.

But that’s the problem. Saying you’re happy and being happy are two different things. And I think we get very caught up in the should-be’s – the social scripts of how we should think and feel. And I think that’s part of the problem with mental health – feeling depressed isn’t okay, so we suffer in silence. We feel alone and unacceptable so we feel more depressed and isolated and unloveable. We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t feel sad, that we can’t be ourselves, and the pressure crushes us.

The other problem? We too often think we’re alone. Out of this understanding that our sorrow violates the norms of human functioning comes a belief that we are the odd ball out, we are failing being normal. You are not failing anything, and you are not the only one suffering. Imagine how freeing it would be to accept this?

I read an interesting passage by Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning, in it he talks about how we know ourselves first through others (me) before we know ourselves (I). This struck me because we essentially put ourselves on the hands of others, we become what they want us to be. We talk about self-fulfilling prophecies in a lot of my classes and yet this thought has never struck me. Am I only me as I exist in others eyes? Is it then the discrepancy, the knowledge that our me and I don’t match. We feel split and confused.

I thought about this a lot because I am very much an open book, ask me anything and I will generally give you an honest, albeit potentially partial answer. I don’t come with much of a censor system. And I am a huge advocate for mental illness being something okay to talk about; for stopping the silence and shame of mental illness; and increasing the awareness. But I live a double life.
There’s the me that has my shit together. That knows exactly where I’m going and what I want. Then there’s the part of me that knows what it is to suffer, that cares too deeply. That questions if I’ve got it all figured out.

When I started applying to graduate studies I was told that the number one rule was to not talk about my experiences with mental illness. I felt like I had been punched.

Number one rule of Fight Club? Don’t talk about Fight Club.

I get it. Sort of. We want rational psychologists – the depressed can’t tell the depressed how to be less depressed. And I don’t want to get into grad school out of the professor’s pity – I do want them to see me as competent, intelligent, and caring. But at the same time I am mildly disgusted. I heard of a student who was forced onto a leave when the faculty found out he had a mental illness. I was told that even if the issue was resolved the faculty would still look at you differently. And I just want to scream – this doesn’t mean you’re broken and defective.

And so, despite my general openness, and my advocacy for awareness and acceptance. I don’t talk about this. But I want things to be different, I want it to be okay to walk up to someone and say, “I need a break. I’m not ok. I need help,” and have that person respond “That’s ok. You’ll be ok. Let me help.”

A few months ago I signed the “It’s Time To Talk” pledge. And you know what happened? I didn’t talk. I kept my mouth shut. Yeah I talked vaguely on here about body image and depression and suicide. I joke about cheering people up, I know that I am accepting of mental illness in others but I never opened up to the world, that I, a twenty-something woman with my life together, have known mental illness. I have seen its painful effects.

This is my brother Troy, he would have turned 29 last week, 12 years ago today, he took his own life.

This is my brother Troy, he would have turned 29 last week, 12 years ago today, he took his own life.

People don’t suspect that of me – in society we have this idea that those with mental illnesses are completely nuts, total hot messes, a sobbing mess in the corner, or else freaking out/hallucinating. Sometimes that is true, but the majority you might not even suspect. I went to class, I went to prom, I dated, I worked. Didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting.

Life hurts sometimes.

Sometimes it hurts really bad.

But pain is subjective.

And if everyone cries; if everyone is sometimes overwhelmed with the agony that sometimes comes with life; if everyone needs someone to tell them it’s going to be ok – why can we not accept this? Because maybe it means that if all these normal people can suffer depression, and anxiety, and eating disorders then what does this say about us? That we too may break down? Well damn, thank goodness there’s all these understanding individuals all around…

Acting like there’s something inherently wrong with the mentally ill doesn’t protect you and it doesn’t help anyone. Reach out, love everyone. It sounds preachy and cheesy, but you never know what someone is hiding. You don’t know what they’re going through, so smile at them because sometimes that can make the difference. If you’re suffering from a mental illness I’d love to hear from you – you’re not alone and only through talking about it can we break down all this shame.

I saw this video a few months ago, and it really inspired me.

Hey You, You Matter

this is a legit thing for me.

Do you remember how as a little kid you had this belief that if you couldn’t see someone they couldn’t see you? We generally believe we grow out of it. In a sense we do. But really we don’t.

I can’t even count the number of times I have pretended to be busy or avoided eye contact walking down the street or through the mall, afraid that someone will talk to me. This may be considered different, in a sense it’s more of a “don’t bug me” shield, but at the same time, I act like I’m not looking at them, so they’re not there and if they are there, they don’t see me.

Arriving at university, profs see the stress, they see signs of anxiety and depression and they ignore it. Yes, the university has trained them to recognize the signs of stress, depression, and anxiety, and they’ve been given nice little pamphlets detailing what to do if they suspect a student may comment suicide or is in serious distress (pst – it says give them another pamphlet directing them to someone else). But at the end of the day, in such high stress environments, pretty much every student is stressed, especially at this time of year. Can you really blame a prof for not being able to discriminate  between haven’t-slept-in-three-days stressed and oh-my-God-so-much-to-do stressed from I-can’t-do-it stressed?

It was refreshing Friday to hear my Child and Adolescent Psychopathology prof say “I know a lot of you are probably struggling, this time of year is tough. Don’t struggle alone, get help, if you don’t know where to turn, email me or the TA and we’ll get you in touch with someone.”


I’m not saying that she has helped so much and should be nominated for all sorts of awards, especially since really she wasn’t doing anything beyond human kindness, but this was the first time in my university career I had a professor acknowledge that many students were probably at their limits and push them to get help.

Yes, I’ve had professors acknowledge in a lazy way that they recognize students are at the point in the semester where they’re tired, but this was the first time I have had a professor, very seriously acknowledge students’ pain and passionately urge them to get help.

The timing of Dr Roger’s comment was almost too perfect, as by the time she said this, I was stressed to the max. Looking around the room, I could tell I was not the only one who hadn’t slept more than 6 hours a night in the last week. I’m okay though, I know how to be ok, I trust that it will all work out in the end. I hold on to the fact that in less than a month I can breathe again.

I think a lot of people have a mentality that if they talk about suicide it will put ideas in people’s heads. Which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I think a lot of people also fall prey to two issues:

  1. They shouldn’t be stressed – ____ is nothing.
  2. I shouldn’t coddle them – they need to learn to deal with things.

The problem with these is:

  1. Stress is subjective. Stress in the mechanical sense is a strain, stress in the people sense is feeling overwhelmed – it’s not the strain, it’s the perception of the strain.
  2. Telling someone to learn to deal isn’t giving them what they need.

I’m not saying that you should always let people wallow in self-pity, and I’m not saying you have to react to a nuclear melt down over spilled milk. But has someone saying “You’re over-reacting” or “You just need to deal with things better ” ever made you feel better?

Certainly never made me feel better.

this is a legit thing for me.

this is a legit thing for me.

Sometimes, people just need you to listen and say, “That sucks, want a hug?” And sometimes they need a reminder that it will be over soon, that soon life will be easier and someone cares.

Me, I complain sometimes, it often seems that I want someone to fix things, or that I am totally overwhelmed. Really I just need to say it aloud, I know I can do it – I comfort myself that I have survived thus far, so I should be good to keep going.

I thought a lot about this, it played on my mind all weekend, how to convey Dr Roger’s message and mine, without sounding cheesy or preachy, or repeating all the stuff I said in my last post about suicide. And I realized, I had nothing to say, I had things to share.





See when I have a bad day, I text someone, and this happens:

I love this girl. And her delicious icing making skills.

I love this girl. And her delicious icing making skills.

But I also have this wonderful set of bookmarks in my internet browser, and a folder on my laptop full of little things that will make me smile. Sites like UpWorthy always have some cool stuff to make you smile, but in case you are in desperate need of a laugh, or just a reminder that hey, life ain’t over yet, I present to you in no particular order, the top 10 things that made me laugh this week*

  1. #Roofbreakup I feel bad, love just died, but it is so damn funny. If you haven’t been on the internet lately – basically, this comedian is hanging out on his roof, couple comes up to have a couple fight and he live tweets their break up.

    Because that was the right thing to say...

    Because that was the right thing to say…

  2. 31 gifs that will make you laugh (the K-Mart “giffing out” commercials on the other hand are just weird)

    I can see my nephew doing this and it cracks me up.

    I can see my nephew doing this and it cracks me up.

  3. The perfect tell off – Why assuming makes an ass out of you and me. On an interesting side note, driving home from Run Club Sunday I was on a high, started dancing in my car, I glanced over, this 8 year old with an iPhone (don’t even ask me why an 8 year old needs an iPhone) is filming me, when she saw I saw her she gets this “Oh shit” look, and ducks. I shrugged and kept right on dancing. At least someone got a laugh? dancing gif
  4. Kira is more dangerous to my health than I was previously aware of, here is why.time to pet me
  5. If your friends were cats versus dogs. Actually all their stuff is pretty funny. Yeah, I know, I’m sort of a crazy cat lady. 
  6. Puppies. That is all. (Check out your school’s website, uOttawa actually has pet therapy, apparently it is becoming more common.)puppied
  7. Kittens being scared by iguanas. And making friends with a hedgehog. Expect the unexpected anyone?

  8. Christmas commercials. Some of them are a little bizarre, but commercials like the K-Mart “Show Your Joe” are just too funny not to laugh.
  9. This guy just makes me smile.  “Skinny is just skinny, that’s all it is…All these things skinny promises are a lie.”
  10. I’m not happy about winter coming, gone are the days when I took joy in “the pretty snow” particularly after Sunday’s run in -24C on slippery sidewalks. I need a white Christmas, but after that I’m good with spring. This makes me smile though. calvin sno

So I joked a lot, I laughed a lot, really I just want to say – If you’re struggling, I promise you someone loves you. You’re reading this post, so I love you. There is a little at the end of the tunnel. Just stick it out, but don’t stick it out alone. Call someone. Pet a cat. Drink a hot chocolate.

*Effects may have been exaggerated by my excessive sleep deprivation. No seriously, psychologists knew it would never pass ethics to test sleep deprivation in human subjects, so they created universities, where they would have an endless supply of sleep deprived participants.