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9 things you’ve got to stop saying about mental illness… and 4 questions to ask yourself instead.

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NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.


Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
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Some of these phrases are so deeply ingrained that you might not even realize you’re talking about mental illness when you say them.

  1. “You’re driving me crazy.”
  2. “I’m feeling schizophrenic about the situation.”
  3. “Quit being so paranoid!”
  4. “Are you totally nuts?”
  5. “He broke up with that psycho girlfriend.”
  6. “Maybe you’re hearing things.”
  7. “She’s a little disturbed.”
  8. “Welcome to the loony bin.”
  9. “He has issues.”

Oh, yeah… and then there’s the Big #10:  “mental illness.”  What does it mean, anyway?  Is it like a virus, rotting away at somebody’s brain? 

Most of us have no clue. 

If you put people on the spot, most well-trained politically correct individuals today would probably ascribe it to something chemical going haywire in a person’s brain.  The less politically correct – maybe to bad childrearing. 

They’d be the confident ones, absolutely certain that something like this could never happen to their kids, in their family.

Want to hear something heartbreaking?

Never mind.  Of course you do.

A study in 1998 proved that third-graders didn’t really knew what mental illness was – but they knew it was something bad.

I believe that, for most of us, our understanding doesn’t get much more sophisticated than that.

According to the study, the kids were pretty sure that a mentally ill person would…

  • probably take a shower/bath when needed (78% said yes; they said 79% for a person with a  physical disability vs. 93% for a “regular grown-up”)
  • dress nicely (78% vs 83% for a physical disability; 89% for the “regular grown-up”)
  • help you if you hurt yourself (65% vs 67% for a physical disability; 92% for a “regular grown up”)

(Adler, Ann K.; Wahl, Otto F.; American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1998, vol. 68, issue 2, p 321, Children's beliefs about people labeled mentally ill.)

One thing is clear:  kids don’t really know what the difference is between a mental illness and a physical disability… but they know it’s nothing good.

What about the rest of us?

While 53% of the kids said they knew somebody with a mental illness, these people turned out to include individuals with such decisively non-mental illnesses as cancer, the flu and broken bones.  The article says, “none [of the kids] correctly described a mental illness.”

What about the rest of us?

What about you?  Could you describe a mental illness?  Could you describe a person who has one – someone who is loved and troubled and unique in all the world?

If so, then maybe you’re entitled to use those phrases, in the same way that black people and gay people and even mad people are reclaiming the language that formerly stigmatized them.

For most of us, though, our casual familiarity with the language of mental illness, through popular (if inaccurate) words like “schizo” and “paranoid,” masks both our deep ignorance and our deep discomfort. 

We don’t know what it is… and we don’t want to know.

This ignorance is something we would not tolerate with almost any other kind of condition. 

  • Can you describe how a person who is deaf might look?
  • Have you ever talked to a person living with a broken ankle?
  • Would a person in a wheelchair be able to love and care for his children?
  • How could you help a person experiencing a stomach virus?

These are easy questions, with easy answers.  The answers come easily because we have all experienced these things first-hand.  But it is also almost certainly true, given the statistics, that we have all encountered a person with a mental illness… and then forced them into invisibility with our euphemisms and abuses of the language of mental illness.

I don’t have any answers.  But here are a few good questions.

  • Can you describe how a person with a mental illness might look?
  • Have you ever talked to a person living with a mental illness?
  • Would a person with a mental illness be able to love and care for his children?
  • How could you help a person experiencing a mental illness?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Drop me a note in the Comments section downstairs.

[photo credit gaetanlee via Wikimedia]

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Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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