Survivors who suffer from depression hardly speak up about it or seek help because of the social stigma and the discrimination attached to the illness. Few of us would ever want to cause harm with our words or actions; in an ideal world, we’ll strive to be sensitive to those around us and to avoid abusive or denigrating language. Thanks to awareness campaigns, activism and social media where conversations around encouraging trends towards more inclusive language and understanding about depression are just recently being had; yet cultural blindspots remain – and the sphere of mental and emotional health is still filled with stigma. These stigmas are very much harmful and have grave implications for those who deal with trauma by deepening personal shame and isolation.
As we seek to be better friends and allies, it’s important that we are vigilant about the language we use and we consciously monitor harmful beliefs and social biases we might have. Below are a few common ways that our ordinary speech and “harmless” jokes may be hurting those around us.
- Speaking Negatively about Therapy. Many people still think that seeing a therapist is something that only crazy people do. It is often used as shorthand to imply that someone is weak or poorly adjusted, or as an off-handed way of expressing our contempt for someone. The truth is, therapy can be an important part of well-being for people who experience acute symptoms of trauma, as well as those simply navigating the “normal” challenges of daily life. It’s important to remember that seeking treatment is a sign of courage and hope, an effort that should be celebrated, not condemned.
- Joking about being “Addicted” or “Obsessed”. Addiction is one of the effects of sexual trauma. Experiencing rape or sexual abuse can leave survivors with effects that they might not be well-equipped enough to handle on their own. And considering that sexual assault often leaves the victims with feelings of shame, thereby encouraging silence; some victims in a bid to cope with trauma, end up with different forms of addiction. Much remains unknown about the mechanics of addictions and obsessive behaviours – there are elements of biochemistry and genetics, alongside social context and personal choice. Regardless, they’re no laughing matter. Too often, words like “addicted” and “obsessed” are used to show preference for something – “I’m so addicted to Game of Thrones”, someone might say, although what she actually means is, it’s a show she enjoys watching frequently. Misusing labels like this can be misleading and demeaning, and lead us to not take compulsive or addictive behaviours as seriously as we should.
- Making Jokes about Medication. Prescription medication is often part of a broad strategy for well-being. In the case of depression, telling someone in a bad mood to take some antidepressants implies that it is not a “serious” medication for “actual” illnesses, but rather a “happy pill” that can be self-prescribed as a shortcut to dealing with a bad day. This is not only a reductive understanding of the purpose of medication, but it also demeans the experiences of those who have actually been diagnosed with depression and rely on prescribed drugs as part of their treatment.
- Believing Inaccurate Stereotypes and Myths about Depression. Jokes about depression and mental health in general can be incredibly damaging, and at the very least, perpetuate misinformation. If you’re concerned about a friend’s mood or sudden change in lifestyle choices, consider whether an informed, private conversation might be appropriate. But leave the joking aside.
- Not Asking Enough Questions. With so many potential pitfalls, it can be easy to think the solution is to avoid speaking about issues of mental health altogether. This would not be a solution — because silence can be stigmatizing, too. Rather, the best antidote to misunderstanding and shame is often respectful conversation. Ask about language — are there words to avoid, words that your friend prefers you use instead? Ask about support — is there anything you can do to be more considerate? When appropriate, asking a friend to help you understand their experience better through personal stories can be a powerful way to dismantle the illusion of difference that stigma can create.
Adapted from Bustle: www.bustle.com