"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.

The real consequences of burnout

In my first article, I mentioned the fact that there is a culture in college that promotes taking on excessive amounts of stress. Actually, this stressful lifestyle probably starts in high school or even earlier. Obviously, putting that much strain on ourselves for an extended period of time takes a massive toll on our bodies — and I am just as guilty as the next person when it comes to this. All we really lose is sleep, right? Wrong. Burnout is real.

Read More

Oppression accompanies mental health stigma

By Jocelyn Gardner '16
Mental Health Columnist

When I decided to write this issue’s article on the topic of stigma, I was wary of the fact that most people in Claremont probably have an understanding of stigma against mental illness. I was about to scrap the idea — until I made a few disturbing discoveries.
To give some context, I read a large number of resources and articles about mental health. This means I see all of the positive sides of the issue. When looking for resources to compare and add to the blog, of course I see all the support that exists, and I often come across descriptions of stigma and people’s negative experiences (which usually end positively, on these sites). I do not find much in support of the harmful stigmatized views I see in everyday life, despite my certainty of their existence. My point is, I search very specifically to find the helpful results because I know where to search. Instead of discussion on stigma, I wanted to find the beast in its natural habitat. I started looking into this in the most basic of ways: Google.
In Google search, I typed in a few key words to see what autocomplete shows as the most relevant similar searches. For example, the top two autocomplete options for the words “depression is” were “depression is not real” and “depression is a choice.” Top result for “bipolar is” is “bipolar is fake”. A particularly horrifying instance came up with “self harm is”; “Self harm is so stupid,” “self harm is attention seeking,” “self harm is for attention” and “self harm is selfish” were the four autocomplete searches.
It goes without saying that this is offensive in the very least, but this issue is so much larger than the word “stigma” seems to encompass. The word stigma in all its connotations cannot contain the widespread, often internalized and systematic shame, isolation, exclusion, blame, bias and stereotypes. Where have we heard this talk about cycles of oppression before? Social justice. Yes, this is about social justice.
Some of this oppression goes beyond the obvious, however. We have heard of friends turning their backs on people who have come out as having a mental illness but we are often not aware of the deeper lurking problems such as media portrayal and careless language. An example to consider is the way that the media portrays people who have committed violent crimes as “crazy” and point to a mental illness as a cause without necessarily providing further evidence or information that clarifies or explains the mental illness — this leads to misconception.
People who see mental illness as a cause for violence can criminalize people with mental illness and treat them differently. The alleged connection between mental illness and violence is not as strong as media would suggest. According to mentalhealth.gov, “the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.” Since the mental health discussion, as I explained in last issue’s article, is not prevalent by any stretch, the general public is not exposed to material that would correct this view. They might not even realize how inaccurate the information is, since major commercialized news sources are widely regarded as infallible sources.
Another instance of mis-understanding and stigmatization of mental health that comes to mind is the use of trigger warnings. Honestly, I had never heard of a trigger warning until coming to Scripps. In one class I had, the professor asked us if we thought that they were important, and I was surprised at the range of opinions. Of course, upon further reading, the internet is also ambivalent, and many people think that trigger warnings are overblown. Before I get farther into this point, I want to make a few distinctions and reaffirm where the importance of this issue rests. Trigger warnings are a relatively recent way to warn people of possible triggers, which allows writers more freedom to write about intense topics. Triggers are not content that is simply “uncomfortable” or controversial. Trigger responses can include panic attacks, dissociation, flashbacks and compulsions among many varied symptoms. Note that these are mental and physical responses that are involuntary and can affect someone hours and even days after exposure to the trigger.
In my class, some students argued that people should know their own triggers and do research themselves to avoid them, as well as that “discomfort” and “challenge” are essential to learning. I do not disagree, nor do I disagree that the “real world’ also does not have trigger warnings.
I understand that there are many cases where people do not use trigger warnings this way and label content incorrectly. Is this really a reason to dismiss trigger warnings for those who need them? How much should these people have to go out of their ways — change the way they live their lives — to protect their own health? More importantly, why should one group of people be allowed to decide what others can or should feel?
The matters I have discussed raise many important questions. I would love for this to be a continuing point of discussion — share your opinions at www.scrippsvoicementalhealth.wordpress.com or the google form, which is linked to on the blog. Comments and submissions are anonymous on both sites. All opinions are welcome and accepted, and as I have said that I have seen a large range when it comes to these topic. I genuinely would like to hear any and all opinions people send to get a better idea of the views in our community.