Say What You Mean: What We Talk About When We Talk About Mental Illness

There’s a great scene in the film Inside The Rain where the unforgettable character Ben Glass, who chooses to define his bipolar disorder as “recklessly extravagant,” is eager to blend in with his college classmates the first day. They’re doing that classic around the circle introduction when one of the classmates, describing his double major, says “I guess you could say I’m bipolar in terms of my interests.” When it’s Ben’s turn he responds with “I’m actually, literally, bipolar,” with a little bit of pointiness. I guess his classmate’s statement would be an example of what you’d call an unintentional microaggression in the way it minimizes a serious illness by using it as a frivolous descriptor. It is really hard to avoid these kinds of statements all the time, unless it is called out as hurtful as it was in this scene, and then it’s kind of hard to forget.

Damon Smith points out in the documentary Mental As Everything that when people say things like “I’m so OCD about my closet” it doesn’t even make grammatical sense, because what they’re really saying is “I’m so obsessive compulsive disorder about organizing my closet.” Being overly meticulous and organized is not necessarily “OCD” either. In another great short film about the subject, Stepping Out, the main character confesses, when her date sees her aligning her silverware, “I have OCD. But not the cleaning kind, my apartment is a mess.” The filmmaker said they’d always wanted to see that kind of OCD character, which reflected their own illness, on the screen, and not the stereotypical one. It’s important to realize not only that an Internet quiz about sorting colors cannot diagnose you with OCD, but that everyone with OCD experiences it differently. For many people being clean isn’t even a part of it, while needing to do an activity a certain number of times or in the right order is essential to completing a task or even for keeping bad things from happening.

Most people don’t like being pigeonholed or labeled. Some people prefer to say that they live with a mental illness, or that they live with bipolar disorder, instead of simply saying “I’m bipolar,” finding that reductive. It’s difficult to get everything right all the time when addressing sensitive topics, but when I hear a preference for language usage from a marginalized community I try to listen, and especially to the reasons why that language is used, which helps it stick for me. When I first started hearing the term “died by suicide” and heard advocates for suicide prevention say that it helps strip the stigma of what many consider a shameful act from the term, that made a lot of sense to me and I’ve tried to use that language ever since. Even if it could mean a potential difference in sparing someone hurt through a change that is easy to make and becomes second nature after awhile, the less hurtful choice seems like the way to go.

Here is a surprisingly catchy song about OCD that Damon Smith wrote and performed which was featured in Mental As Everything. This is a good example of a film that addressed the topic of mental illness with a good dose of humor and quirkiness. I still get this one stuck in my head sometimes.

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