Leave Mental Illness Out Of It. Changing Our Language 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

I don't think mental illnesses should be used to describe our daily stresses. Someone's serious challenge shouldn't also explain how I feel about spilling coffee on my shirt. I've spent the last couple of months reflecting on this, and I'm asking us all to do the same. I think it is essential for the children we work with to know how to think about and respect the challenges of mental illness.

Why I Care

We can all agree that living with a mental illness is a serious challenge, whether you struggle or you empathize. Successfully living with a mental illness requires support and treatment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adolescents will develop a serious mental illness. 80% of adolescents will not receive treatment. There is an 8-10-year delay between when symptoms arise and when treatment begins. We have a lot of work to do.

Despite these treatment gaps, culturally, we are increasingly employing self-care, mindfulness, and mental health days. People are more open about their mental health issues. Our health insurance companies can't charge more for you to see a psychologist. Those are reasonable steps forward. 

While our mental health care is a more significant problem to solve, there is another problem we can tackle that is hiding in plain view.

It has become common for people to use mental illnesses to describe our typical challenging moments and bad days.

Forgot a deadline? "Sorry! Just my ADHD acting up."
Misunderstood a social signal? "My autism is out of control."
"I had a total panic attack when I missed my Amazon delivery."
Has someone's mood changed? "Don't be so bipolar."

Getting beyond how strange it is to use a serious disorder to describe your tough morning, these can seem minor. I understand how easy it is to use these terms. They are all over our news and entertainment. Heck, I am writing this post and still have to be vigilant about my language.

Let's take a quick minute to reflect on what it might feel like if you struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and a neat neighbor casually refers to her preference for organization as OCD. Her intention isn't to be hurtful or insensitive, but her impact is negative.

Using mental illness terms casually dilutes their meaning and communicates that these issues aren't serious.

Now, what if you are an eight-year-old who just started taking medication for ADHD? Or a thirteen-year-old who is depressed and suicidal? How does our language, regardless of our intention, affect them? I'd venture to say the impact can be more significant, all without us even being aware.

Why Educators Should Care

In your classroom right now, students are struggling with their mental health. There are students with family members with mental illnesses. There are students without any experience with mental illness who are taking direction from you on how to talk and think about it.

As educators, we take great pride in creating classroom communities that help our students develop social-emotional skills and become strong, caring people. The language we use is an integral part of this.

What is our language telling students about how we think about mental illness? How do you want your students to think about mental health and illness? How do you want them to feel when they struggle with their mental health?

Make this concrete and write down your answer to those questions. Spend a week thinking about what you do in your classroom (and outside of it) that supports or hinders those goals.

How to Make a Change

I've been thinking about this topic extensively over the last few months. I was reflecting on my language and considering the impact it might have on someone struggling with mental illness. Here are some things that I am doing to eliminate the casual use of mental illness in my vocabulary. 

Name Them: List the psychological terms that have crept into your casual language. 

Accountability: I'm working to eliminate these technical terms from my casual language. I've told my family and friends and encouraged them to call me out when I slip up. My sister loves that. 🙂

Accurate Language: I'm trying to describe my stresses more accurately. No more depressed, but rather really sad. No more ADHD, but instead, I was unfocused yesterday.

Educate: Explain to someone else why our language about mental illness is essential. There is no need to get on a soap box, but we make changes when we educate others using kindness and understanding.

Advocate: Teach a student how to advocate for themselves and their struggles.

This post is certainly not meant to be a wagging finger but rather a hope that my questions stick in your head and help you make a small positive change for those around you, especially the students in front of you. 

If you want to continue the conversation, email me. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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