"Calling In" Stigmatized Language

By Jocelyn Gardner '17
Mental Health Columnist & Webmaster

Trigger/content warnings: Ableism, OCD (detailed), Eating Disorders, Phobias (detailed), Psychopathy and Sociopathy

This summer, I put together the first-ever (Officially) Unofficial Scripps College Survival Guide, and I learned way more than I expected to. Of course, as the mental health columnist, I made sure that topics directly and indirectly related to mental health and wellness were sufficiently covered, though I believe that all of the articles in the Guide contribute to mental wellbeing. The Guide also had a lot of content relating to inclusive language and breaking down misconceptions, something I think my column, which I intend as a critical look into mental health through a social justice lens, also does. In the spirit of the guide, I want to “call in” (as opposed to “call out”) some language I hear used often.

In my experience, people at Scripps do not deliberately use mental illness, differences, or disability in a derisive way. I’m talking about something along the lines of an appalling comment I overheard at the San Diego Zoo. A kid was watching a hippo swim and pointed at it, saying, “Wow, look how stupid it is! It has Down Syndrome!” I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped in complete disbelief. That’s obviously ableist language, but sometimes people don’t recognize ableism because of the seemingly harmless context and intention.

In the following section, I will give an overview of such instances as they relate to certain mental health conditions.

Phobias. These are a very tricky subject, and one I covered briefly in the Guide. Phobias are very intense, irrational, uncontrollable, and persistent “fears” of objects, ideas, situations, etc. which do not constitute a legitimate threat. I hesitate to use the word “fear” because I think that the connotations of fear are misleading. Phobias vary in severity, so it can be hard to distinguish whether a person who uses the word has a real phobia or not. The one I hear the most is arachnophobia, so I used that as an example in my “Phobia” article in the Guide: “If you had severe arachnophobia, you’d know that you would probably check the corners and the walls of rooms to make sure there are no spiders. You might avoid going into basements and garages. If you see one, you’ll have a sudden physiological reaction…” I recommend reading the full article in the guide, even if it is just because I’m more sassy in it than usual.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the words “homophobia,” “transphobia” and “xenophobia.” (There are more than these three words, but they are common ones.) In most cases, I doubt that a phobia diagnosis can be reached, though I know that it is possible to have these phobias. My uncertainty is centered on the use of these words as ways to describe discrimination. I suppose whether it is a real phobia or not can depend on the source of the bias for each individual, but I don’t like that idea that widespread oppression can be written off (even implicitly) as a mental illness. I’ve addressed this briefly before, and I haven’t really answered anything, but these questions are important to bring up.

I’m a little shocked at how much I hear OCD used in incorrect ways. Being an organized, tidy, particular, clean and/or careful person does not make you obsessive-compulsive. I’ve included this section from iocdf.org to help show what it can feel like:

 “Imagine that your mind got stuck on a certain thought or image…Then this thought or image got replayed in your mind / over and / over again / no matter what you did… / You don’t want these thoughts — it feels like an avalanche… / Along with the thoughts come intense feelings of anxiety… / Anxiety is your brain’s alarm system.  When you feel anxious, it feels like you are in danger.  Anxiety is an emotion that tells you to respond, react, protect yourself, DO SOMETHING! / On the one hand, you might recognize that the fear doesn’t make sense, doesn’t seem reasonable, yet it still feels very real, intense, and true… / Why would your brain lie? / Why would you have these feelings if they weren’t true? Feelings don’t lie…  Do they? / Unfortunately, if you have OCD, they do lie.  If you have OCD, the warning system in your brain is not working correctly.  Your brain is telling you that you are in danger when you are not. / …Those tortured with OCD are desperately trying to get away from paralyzing, unending anxiety…”

The thoughts referred to are the obsessions, and they are not voluntary and are often very disturbing. Compulsions are the rituals (such as counting, tapping, or repeating words) used to try to alleviate the intrusive thoughts. Obviously, OCD should not be trivialized. Describing your cleanliness as OCD trivializes those who have OCD, framing a very real mental illness as funny and unfortunate condition instead of something that negatively influences the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  

Psychopath/sociopath. Do not ever use psychopath or sociopath to refer to someone with criminal, especially homicidal, tendencies. Psychopaths and sociopaths are not necessarily criminals. Criminals are not necessarily psychopaths or sociopaths, who, by the way, are actually classified under Antisocial Personality Disorders in the DSM-V.

I have a specific memory relating to an abuse of the term Bipolar. In 7th grade, a student in my math class called my teacher, who had a short temper, bipolar because she’d go pretty quickly from sweet and grandmotherly to terrifying. A short temper is a short temper, though it might be caused by an underlying psychological condition. Bipolar doesn’t have to do with “mood swings” as people generally understand them. People with Bipolar Disorder experience mania and depression, and each of these last for weeks or months rather than moments. Describing people/yourself as “bipolar” without having Bipolar Disorder or to make an edgy point? Not cool.

Using “anorexic” to describe someone’s appearance is absolutely not okay. Body shaming is not okay. Joking about eating disorders and disordered eating in terms of describing a person is dangerous, so don’t take them lightly. You don’t have to explicitly talk about eating disorders to say problematic things. In the Guide, there are a couple of articles on these topics, including my article for National Eating Disorder Awareness week last year (also available on thescrippsvoice.com)—I highly recommend them, especially if you want to know how to be a good ally.

I have used these specific examples to make my point, but there are so many more. I challenge you to use these as a starting point for critical thinking. Before you say something, think about what it might really mean, and consider the fact that someone listening to you could be affected by your words. And if you hear it, be an ally, and call the person in—clarify, explain your point, and be supportive about it. The way to fight stigma is through education and empathy, not through villainizing those who are not as up-to-date as you. Don’t fight fire with fire.