January 24, 2019 | Allegra Osborne
On November 18th, 2018, QCMHA participated in a workshop led by the Mental Health Awareness Committee (MHAC) at Queen’s. I always thought lack of conversation, lack of awareness and accessibility to resources, and lack of support from staff and faculty were some of the toughest mental-health-related problems hitting students. That is until MHAC raised the topic of the manner in which we do talk about mental health and how to do so appropriately. I thought, “isn’t any conversation good conversation?”
In fact, both talking about mental health in an inappropriate way and not talking about mental health at all are harmful towards the stigma.
We know mental illness should be treated equally to a physical illness: both can impede on your ability to function on a day-to-day basis. When we talk about physical illnesses, we say, for example, “I have Crohn’s disease.” On the other hand, when we talk about mental illnesses, we say “he’s bipolar.” Why, for a mental illness, do you become the illness?
The most impactful lesson I have learned since being on this executive team is that your mental illness does not define you. You are kind, you are generous, you are smart, you are funny, you are curious, you are ambitious, but you are not your illness, and we should not treat you as so.
Going forward, it is important to know how your words have an impact on people. Instead of saying “he’s OCD”, say “he struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder”. You may think you are saying the same thing. However, the first can be hurtful and has a detrimental effect on stigma, while the other shows support and understanding. Additionally, the first could suggest blame, but we would never blame someone for having a physical disease.
The way we speak about mental health also ties into inappropriate use of terms. For example, saying “it looks so depressing outside” is a derogatory statement. Depression is a mental illness that should not be used to describe the weather because again, it can be hurtful or disrespectful.
None of this is to discourage you from talking about mental health. This is more to bring the language surrounding mental health to your attention and to become more aware of it. That way, if you ever find yourself in a situation where the language seems hurtful or improperly used, you can correct yourself or others. So yes, talking about mental health will ease the stigma, however the language in which we talk about mental health is key.