“He was being so weird, it was creepy. There’s definitely something wrong with him…maybe he has Asperger’s or something.”
I overheard this conversation earlier this week. The conclusion that an awkward acquaintance must have Asperger’s syndrome – a disorder on the autism spectrum characterized by social difficulties – is too common and somewhat troubling.
As a psych major, I’ve seen this before. You take one abnormal psych class and, next thing you know, you think you’re a clinical psychologist. You start telling people how they fit the new, arbitrary criteria you’ve just read about. Your roommate’s been moping around feeling tired? She must be depressed. But wait, she seemed cheerful yesterday? She’s probably bipolar.
From the casual nature of these exchanges, it is clear that the language used to describe mental illness has made its way into our everyday conversations, yet, somehow, mental illness remains taboo.
According to the Canadian Medical Association, only half of Canadians would tell a friend that a family member has a mental illness. Although one in five Canadians are dealing with a mental illness, the topic is rarely brought up.
In Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, she argues that misusing the language that describes illness only furthers feelings of shame in patients. She talks about how the term cancer has become a synonym of death and, in other cases, a social metaphor; something being described as “a cancer on society” is now commonplace. While she writes mainly about terms used to describe physical illnesses, her ideas also apply to language regarding mental health.
While we refuse to discuss the real issue of mental health, words used to describe people with mental illnesses are often thrown around. My friend once described herself as “super OCD” because she’s organized and likes to keep her room clean. According to Dr. Arun Chopra’s research in 2007 at Nottingham University that looked at the usage of term “schizophrenia” in UK newspapers, up to 30 per cent of references to this illness in the media were metaphorical. Some usages included “the government’s schizophrenic attitude” or “a person’s schizophrenic style.” While these may be thoughtless statements, this language can further the stigmatization of mental illness.
Earlier this year, a young man named Jared Loughner murdered six and injured thirteen in a shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Many reports in the media pointed to his mental health as the main cause of the tragedy, as if giving the explanation of schizophrenia would be enough to explain his actions. This clearly shows how the term schizophrenic has come to be synonymous with images of violence and irrationality, with someone who has become “unhinged” from society.
In reality, there very little correlation between schizophrenia and violence. One study by Oxford researcher Dr. Seena Fazel showed that, while alcohol consumption and drug usage can lead to an increased risk of violence, the same cannot be said for schizophrenia. Although Loughner may have been suffering from paranoid delusions, this case is in no way a representation of all people with schizophrenia. Nevertheless, the media chose to latch onto the public’s fear of mental illness, equating it with the image of insanity depicted in pop culture.
This representation is due to a misunderstanding of what mental illness is. When a disease isn’t understood, it becomes feared, and people begin to create myths, which, in turn, leads to stigmatization.
It’s important to discuss mental illness and to raise awareness about its impact. It is also important to examine the ways in which we talk about it. By using these terms flippantly and attributing inaccurate meanings to them, we are stigmatizing those who suffer from a mental illness. To reduce this stigma, perhaps the first step is to strip these illnesses of all metaphorical meaning, in order to establish a greater public understanding of the realities of mental illness.