Consider the following comments you wouldn’t be surprised to overhear in a coffee shop:
“She’s so bipolar! One day she’s happy, and the next she’s completely depressed.”
“Yeah, that guy is completely schizo, totally unpredictable.”
“Man, I’m so OCD about what shoes to wear.”
Each one makes colloquial use of a word or shorthand phrase related to a mental-health diagnosis—bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder. All are not just imprecise and misleading, but also have the potential to stigmatize people with mental illness.
“Why do we casually insult others with mental health labels such as ‘psycho’ or ‘insane’?” asks Meagan Taylor, a 2002 journalism graduate who is now studying integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We will never get rid of stigma unless we can change our underlying perceptions of mental illness, and that begins partly with how we use our words.”
So, she decided to do something about it. Tasked with creating an outreach project for her abnormal psychology class, Taylor worked with Andrew McGraw, a film studies major, and Lisa Solheim, a former CU art major who is now a mental-health advocate, to create a short public-service video to highlight the problem of stigmatizing language. That video was published this week.
“We don’t go around saying ‘that’s so gay’ anymore, or calling people ‘retards,’ because we realized that the way we used those words could be harmful to people who overhear them,” Taylor says. “Our underlying attitudes need to change, so language has to change, and bringing attention to this is a start.”
Taylor and McGraw—who met while working for CU’s Emergency Medical Services—recruited volunteers to talk about their experiences with language that stigmatizes mental illness. After conducting pre-interviews, they sat conducted on-camera interviews on April 13.
“There is really a desire in the market to tell these kinds of stories, to challenged people’s reality and use of language,” says McGraw, who began making films for YouTube in high school. “I like telling stories that make a difference, make people question their world and challenge them to do better.”
Besides their student volunteers, Taylor and McGraw also turned the lens on Solheim, who has served on the speaker’s board for the nonprofit Mental Health Partners.
Mental illness isn’t the same as someone who’s just screwed up. The guy in Las Vegas who shot up all those people? There was no evidence of mental illness.”
“A lot of times, somebody says ‘schizophrenic’ and they mean somebody who’s just having a hard time or something,” Solheim says. “But mental illness isn’t the same as someone who’s just screwed up. The guy in Las Vegas who shot up all those people? There was no evidence of mental illness.”
But tossing out “mentally ill” any time someone does something harmful or anti-social is surprisingly common, says Solheim, and that can reinforce harmful stereotypes. Solheim recalls the time she sat down for an interview with a man who was renting a room in his house. After he told her he was an alcoholic, she decided to open up about her diagnosis.
“I thought, ‘Wow, we’re admitting our foibles here,’ and said, ‘Well, I’m schizophrenic,’” she says. “His immediate reaction was to say, ‘You aren’t going to come kill me in the middle of the night, are you?’”
Polls have found that 60 percent of Americans believe people with mental illness are “likely” to act violently toward others. While some studies have found a slight correlation between certain specific diagnoses and violence, more refined investigation has found that other factors, including substance abuse, childhood abuse and family history, are more important.
The 2005 MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study at the University of Virginia, for example, controlled for substance use and other environmental factors and found no significant difference in the rates of violence among people with mental illness and other people living in the same neighborhood.
Taylor, who plans to become a physician’s assistant, said her work as a volunteer at a hospital and working in emergency services increased her compassion for people with mental illness. She hopes the PSA will be a small step to help change the way we use language.
“The mental-health community and their allies need to stand up for proper use of terminology, stop casual labels, and promote language empathy if we want people with mental illness to be culturally integrated,” she wrote in her proposal for the PSA.
“We’re not talking about political correctness or policing language,” she says. “We’re talking about being sensitive human beings.”
Abnormal Psychology, PSYC 3303, is taught by Professor June Gruber.