Manitoba·Opinion

You're tidy, not 'OCD': Let's talk about how we talk about mental health

With Bell's annual Let's Talk Day — focused on encouraging people to talk about mental health — here again, it's a good opportunity to look at the language we use when we're doing that, says Sam MacKinnon.

The language we use shows mental illness stigma is still prevalent, despite annual Let's Talk campaign

Stigma toward those with mental illnesses remains powerfully entrenched through the way we talk about and prioritize mental health, says Sam MacKinnon. (Shutterstock / Novikov Alex)

If you've ever spent some time in an open-office environment, the way in which individuals describe themselves and those around them might lead you to believe that your co-workers also happen to have a PhD in clinical psychology.

Mental disorders are commonly used as adjectives in a fond, but self-deprecating, manner by individuals with no clinical mental health training. A person who likes to keep a clean desk might lament their tidiness by saying, "I'm so OCD!" instead of "I love being tidy!"

And with another day focused on encouraging discussion about mental health here, it's important to consider the language we use when we're doing that.

Jan. 31 is Bell Let's Talk Day, a mental health awareness campaign that lives most prominently on social media. Despite the monetarily successful campaign being in its eighth year, stigma toward those with mental illnesses remains powerfully entrenched through the way we talk about and prioritize mental health.

The campaign encourages people to share their experience with mental health issues along with the #BellLetsTalk hashtag. For every social media post using the hashtag, the telecom company donates five cents to mental health initiatives in Canada.

More than $86 million has been donated since the first campaign in 2011, according to Bell, and the funding is much needed. Statistics Canada's 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey on mental health, which looked at six mental and substance use disorders, found that one in three Canadians (about 9.1 million people) met the criteria for at least one of these disorders throughout their lifetime.

Bell Let's Talk spokesperson Clara Hughes speaks at a special announcement for the campaign in Toronto in 2015. Despite the annual event's focus on removing the stigma around mental health, and the work of advocates like Hughes, the language we use shows that still exists, says Sam MacKinnon. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

But while it's clear the campaign has had a marked impact on community and health services, mental illness remains a highly stigmatized topic. The language we use in reference to mental health topics reinforces their stigma and the false idea that mental illnesses are imaginary concoctions, rather than serious health issues.

Mental illness is not an adjective

Though more than 150 disorders are listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5, certain disorders tend to bear the brunt of improper language use: obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Distractedness due to a caffeine high is not ADHD. Feeling sad after a distressing event is not PTSD. A propensity for tidiness is not OCD.- Sam Kayden MacKinnon

When we label ourselves, and those around us, by using mental disorders as adjectives, we are doing great harm to those who actually live with these disorders.

It becomes difficult for a struggling individual to seek out help when the disorder they are struggling with becomes delegitimized through social talk, likening mental disorders to normative emotions and behaviours.

Distractedness due to a caffeine high is not ADHD. Feeling sad after a distressing event is not PTSD. A propensity for tidiness is not OCD.

Mental illness isn't cute or fashionable. Mental illness is a serious health issue that causes impaired functioning or distress in daily activities.

Since an actual diagnosis of mental illness requires the expertise of a mental health professional (which I am not), it's time to shift this harmful trend to use the words we actually mean: tidy, preoccupied, sad or emotional.

Mental illness is not a commodity

In recent years, the term "self-care," or placing an importance on putting time aside to take care of one's mind and body, has been brought to the forefront. A quick Google search of the term will return over a billion results.

Unfortunately, the term has been commodified to such extremes that its original meaning is sometimes lost in a sea of expensive candles, "detoxifying" bath salts and the latest fad yoga class.

And now, after excessive wellness marketing, the term "self-care" tends to elicit an eye roll (likely by the same folks using mental illness as an adjective) when it should be eliciting understanding and respect.

Let's take this day of awareness as a jumping-off point to each day forward, to be aware of ourselves, our language and the way we treat individuals who remain open about their experiences of illness and healing.- Sam Kayden MacKinnon

The relationship between our mental and physical health is strong. People with serious mental health issues are at a high risk of developing chronic physical health conditions, and the reverse is also true.

Considering the importance we place on our physical health, and the comparative lack of stigma in doing so, we should be placing just as much importance on our mental health.

Self-care practices are fundamental aspect of wellness, and these practices can include a number of activities that don't cost money. Deep breathing, walking, or connecting with a friend can all be methods of self-care. 

If, when discussing mental illness, we ridicule those who practise self-care, we are ridiculing personal steps toward healing and wellness. If we place too much of a focus on physical purchases to practise that self-care, we are alienating populations in poverty who are at risk for mental health issues and may not be able to afford the latest self-care fad product.

So as Bell Let's Talk Day gains momentum once again, let's take this day of awareness as a jumping-off point to each day forward, to be aware of ourselves, our language and the way we treat individuals who remain open about their experiences of illness and healing.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Sam Kayden MacKinnon is a freelance writer in Winnipeg. Their commentary on social issues has appeared in CBC Manitoba, Maclean's, Daily Xtra and elsewhere.