"She can't make up her mind. It's like she's Bipolar".
"I'm so ADD today".
"I'm a little OCD about xyz (insert task/organizational strategy here)".
If you do have a mental illness, hearing someone throwing around your illness, that you struggle with daily, as a colloquialism, and then them laughing about it, can be frustrating to say the least. Not to mention, these are the types of actions that continue to spread stigma about mental illness. The thing is, if we inserted physical illnesses in here, people would probably be pretty taken aback. For instance:
"She can't do xyz, it's like she's asthmatic!"
"I'm so cancerous today".
"I'm a little diabetic about xyz"
The thing is, it's not cool. And people seem to know not to do this, because they get that making a joke out of cancer is pretty inconsiderate - especially around anyone with cancer (but really, just in general).
Unfortunately, using mental illness as a phrase that can be tossed around to (inaccurately) describe someone's behavior has become so common that I don't honestly think (some) people realize they what they're doing. They don't think about the fact that they may be sitting next to someone whose ADD is really causing them trouble today, or speaking to someone that does have bipolar disorder. They don't realize they're furthering the stigma by doing so. So I thought it might be helpful to offer some alternatives, the next time you catch someone saying something along these lines.
What people say: "I'm so depressed because I have nothing to wear to my friend's wedding this weekend" (specific example, but the point is, people say "I'm so depressed" when they really mean "this is a bummer/this is kind of an annoyance")
Alternative: "I'm frustrated (bummed/annoyed also works depending on context), I have nothing to wear to my friend's wedding this weekend."
Why: Depression is a serious illness, not a minor inconvenience. It can often make people feel hopeless, worthless, empty, and even question the point of their lives. Comparing this to not having the perfect outfit (or some other day to day issue that's not actually related to one's serious health) minimizes what we go through, and it gives heed to the myth that it's not a serious illness. (i.e. furthers stigma). Using the word "depressed" when you really mean a more minor feeling, like bummed or annoyed, furthers the idea that really, someone with depression could just look at the positive side of things (insert annoying and inaccurate cliche here) and be all better. Because surely, if all it takes is having the right outfit, depression couldn't be that serious, right?
*Note: As someone who's struggled with body image issues and disordered eating alongside depression, there could be situations, if someone struggled with these, that this type of statement is legitimate. Maybe trying to find something nice for a wedding triggers their body images issues and eating struggles, which can in turn affect their depression. But if that's the case, it's probably not said as an off-handed comment while discussing outfits.
What people say: "She can't make up her mind, it's like she's bipolar".
Alternative: "She can't make up her mind", "She keeps changing her mind". Just end the statement there. It's just that. It's not like anything.
Why: There are so many reasons I really can't list them all. But I'll try.
- Bipolar has nothing to do with not being able to make up ones mind. Depression and mania aren't decisions. They're parts of a mood cycle, not intentional changes in action, thought, or words.
- Nobody changes their mind (or anything else) mid-sentence because they're bipolar and have suddenly cycled. It doesn't work like that, even for the most rapid cycling mood disorders.
- People with bipolar disorder struggle with symptoms that can be debilitating, and life-altering at times. Simplifying it to not being able to make up their mind completely dismisses how serious and difficult this illness can be.
- Nobody "is bipolar". They have bipolar disorder. This could be said of any mental illness - or any illness in general. It's not a personality trait, it's an illness.
What people say: I'm so ADD today.
Alternative: I'm having difficulty focusing/concentrating today. I'm easily distracted today. (These are the ways in which it's most commonly said).
Why: The symptoms and challenges of ADD involve more than being easily distracted. Sure, to the general population, being distracted often may be slightly annoying, but ADD involves a multitude of symptoms that can often make school and work tasks particularly challenging. There are a lot of things that can add to our inability to focus these days - like having 100 different pop up notifications for 10 different social media apps on three different devices coming at you all the time. That's a product of our society in the 21st century, not having a medical condition. It's minimizing what someone with ADD goes through to interchange the two.
What people say: I'm a little OCD about xyz.
Alternative: I'm a little particular about xyz (this is what people usually mean).
Why: OCD can be debilitating. There are people who struggle with OCD who have difficulty even leaving the house, or who have to take hours extra in order to do so. It can also be a disorder that causes social isolation, both because of how the person feels in social situations, and because of how others react to their disorder. When people use this as a throw away phrase, they generally mean they're super particular about something. They also may mean that they're extra-organized. But I honestly can't think of a time that being extra-organized caused someone to feel unable to leave their house, or to feel socially isolated. (Note: info given here comes from those I know who do have OCD and have explained it this way).
If you really aren't sure what to say, just stick to this rule: when in doubt, avoid using any medical term/illness to describe someone's behavior.
Finally, a PSA as we close in on Halloween: I cannot believe I have to say this, but mental illnesses, illnesses in general, and disabilities, are NOT Halloween costumes. I'm all for dressing up, but think it through, please, before you decide what to wear.