Opinion: Improving behavior and discussions regarding mental health

Stephen D’Abreau

Stephen D'Abreau

My own illnesses consist of depression and anxiety — I want to be upfront and candid about them.

I was diagnosed as a child with attention deficient disorder, a form of ADHD, with chief symptoms of childhood clinical anxiety. I received professional counseling, something that I have done intermittently throughout my life, even as recently as last year.

I was on prescription medication for my disorder as a child with the chief medication being Zoloft, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used for a wide range of illnesses such as clinical depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and others.

So, I’m no stranger to mental illness.

When it comes to mental health and illness, the topics discussed seem to all revolve around the same few topics. But the three that are of most interest to me are the phenomenon of self-diagnosis, romanticizing mental illness and language policing around mental illness.

The first two are obviously related. The romanticizing of mental illness makes it socially desirable and fashionable. Thus, people will self-diagnose and claim to have illnesses they do not actually have.

Now, this is a problem for people who actually suffer from mental illness because it confuses the whole discussion on the topic, limiting the ability the public has to recognize and respond legitimate mental illness.

Then, of course, it adds insult to injury by trivializing the illness for people who actually have it. This problem is often discussed, but rarely are any practical solutions given.

So, here is a practical guide for a solution to this problem:

First, mental illness is not something that is typically pleasant. It’s not something you want.

If you believe you have it, first ask yourself if there is an alternative explanation. Do you feel anxious because you have a chemical imbalance you can’t control, or is it exam week soon? Don’t jump to mental illness, because, again, it’s not desirable.

Second, ask your friends and family to tell you about any changes in your behavior or their concerns about your behavior. If their responses are alarming, seek professional help.

Don’t ever self-diagnose.

Mental illness is like any other illness. Once you suspect you are actually sick, you need to see a professional so you can receive the information and correct tools to heal.

Just like you wouldn’t self-diagnose brain cancer during a headache, the same logic applies for mental illness. If the headache isn’t cancer, your self-diagnosis is useless.

Even if you’re somehow right and it is cancer, you won’t be able to do anything about it without professional resources. Self-diagnosis is at least as useless, if not more so, in cases of mental illness.

Like self-diagnosis of mental illness, policing language around mental illness is also useless. A lot of it is well-intentioned, don’t get me wrong; I’m sure many people with obsessive-compulsive disorder would prefer the word “OCD” not be used as an insult or in joke punchline.

However, you can’t legislate comedy or kindness. It makes no sense in trying, especially given that the type of person who would do this probably won’t care about your chastisement.

Frankly, most people I know, myself included, with mental health issues are really not interested in language policing and aren’t too keen on having it done on our behalf.

I really don’t care about suicide and depression jokes, and I’d appreciate it if the “kindness police officers” out there would stop speaking on my behalf about how offended I am about a “crippling depression” meme.

I’m not offended. In fact, the joke probably made me chuckle.

Kindness and understanding in how we discuss mental health blossoms organically from public awareness and knowledge, not from chastisement and scolding.

There is probably nothing more annoying and useless about the current nature of discussion on mental health than a person with self-diagnosed “depression” confronting someone else for making a depression-related joke. Even if the joke was in poor taste, someone with actual depression has much bigger concerns than this.

Our public discourse around mental health will improve if we can eliminate the self-diagnosis, romanticizing and language policing. By doing these things, we can focus our attention on the things that are actually important and ways in which to improve how we all deal with mental illness as a larger community.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a student media project entitled “The Silent Struggle.” See the whole project here

Stephen D’Abreau is a columnist, contact him at [email protected]