Mental Illnesses Are Not Adjectives

Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people use a mental illness as an adjective.

These phrases are extremely problematic. And I’ve only ever heard them come out of the mouths of people who aren’t affected by these conditions.

First of all, they use mental illnesses and disorders as adjectives, not nouns (because they are, in fact, mental health diagnoses). OCD is a disorder, not a habit. Bipolar is a disorder, not mood swings. ADD is a disorder, not a temporary lack of focus. Mania is a mental condition, and so is delirium. Neither of them are moods or states of mind.

So what’s really the problem with this?

Well, it’s invalidating towards those who truly experience these mental health challenges. Depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, mania, and delirium are all real issues that people grapple with every day — they’re not just jokes. People who struggle with these disorders (except for maybe mania and delirium) often have them for very long periods of time, if not their whole lives, and are affected by them on a constant basis. People who do struggle with these things would never use their mental health condition as an adjective, because they understand that these issues are not temporary, but are, in fact, chronic, time-consuming, and in some cases even debilitating.

And secondly, it undermines the condition itself. Because people so often use these terms as adjectives in conversation, a considerable amount of myths about mental health tend to develop. People think bipolar disorder is just a series of mood swings and indecisiveness. People think depression is a mindset, or a feeling you wake up with one day, a simple sadness. People think ADHD is just a lack of focus. They think mania is just excessive energy and craziness. They think delirium is when someone is struggling to process information or acts out of the ordinary. They think OCD is just a dedication to organization and tidiness.

But again, these things are much more serious. Obviously, people who struggle with them find ways to live with them, and there are so many strong people who develop wonderful coping mechanisms to combat the negative effects that they experience as a result of mental health challenges. But people who really struggle with these issues also understand that they aren’t momentary or even phasic. They aren’t moods. They aren’t mindsets. They are truly an interference in daily life. They are not a joke or a hyperbolic description.

Especially in recent years, mental health has become a much less stigmatized topic. Younger generations are more in touch with their emotions and mental health and are healthily aware of their conditions. People try to normalize the concept of going to therapy. As a society, we are working to make mental illness a diagnosis, not a character trait. Because that’s the other thing: no one should be defined by their mental illness. But when it’s used as an adjective, there’s an implication that it’s a trait or identity, not a condition. That’s absolutely wrong. Mental health challenges are issues that no one can control. It’s unfair to assign these conditions as “defining” someone when really, it’s simply a part of their life. It’s dehumanizing and dismissive, and it sets back the progress that we are all trying to make in regards to the openness and acceptance around mental health.

Here’s what I’d love to hear come out of people’s mouths instead.

Because you aren’t “OCD.” You’re tidy, organized, strict about cleanliness.

You aren’t “bipolar.” You are moody and indecisive.

You’re not “ADD.” You’re unfocused. You’re easily distracted.

She’s not “manic.” She’s energetic and hyper.

The person isn’t “delirious.” They’re just not acting like themselves.

Digging deeper to find what we really mean — rather than just assigning a mental health term to quickly but unfairly assess someone’s mood or emotions — is the most helpful tool towards fostering positive attitudes around mental health, stopping the stigma, and working to see these conditions as simply conditions, rather than identities.

And it’s worth the deep dig. Because those who really do grapple with these conditions don’t have the luxury of waking up without them. They are not an adjective. They are not a temporary description for someone’s erratic behavior.

They are people.

Writer. Creator. Teacher. Feminist. Just trying to spread love, talk about equity, and be a good human. She/her. Follow me on Instagram @brooklynxreece!

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