My first exposure to mental illness was at age 12. My mom’s brother was going through a difficult divorce with the mother of his children, who was displaying symptoms of mental illness. Acting in ways that put my herself, my Uncle and cousins in danger. When I would hear family telling others about the divorce they would say "Well she was mentally ill" to explain the divorce. There always seemed to be a tone spoken about her that seemed like it was blaming her for her behavior. As a 12 year old who could not understand what was going on, I internalized mental illness as a character defect.

These internalized feelings surfaced three years later at age 15 when I was in need of mental health care. I grouped myself into the same "mentally ill" category like my aunt and applied the same judgment to myself and worried that my family would look at me with that same judgment. I remember one relative saying "The reason why (your aunt) struggled with mental illness was because she did not have a college degree to teach her how to cope". I worried that my needing mental health care meant that I was inadequate at coping.

It frustrates me when I see kind and intelligent people speak about those who struggle with mental illness in a way that lacks sympathy. Overhearing people saying "well she was mentally ill" takes away my aunt's humanity.

Sometimes I wonder if this blame the victim mindset is a source of denial, believing that them or any of their loved ones could struggle from mental illness, though one in four people struggling from mental illness is the reality. So I ask people when they talk about people who struggle with mental illness to utilize language that shows sympathy for people who are mentally ill. Many friends and family do not know about my ongoing mental health issues. My relative has no idea how much of an impact that the statement she made about my aunt over a decade ago had on me. So I urge people to keep that in mind when they are discussing mental illness. You never know what struggles people face.

Changing language can seem like a daunting task. There are small ways that people can be mindful of the way that they discuss mental illness that can make a huge impact on views of mental illness:

  • When talking about someone who has a mental illness, say something like "They have bipolar" instead of they "Are bipolar". This can help the general public believe that mental illness is a part of someone, not completely who they are.
  • Try to not use words like "crazy, psycho, nuts" or use a mental illness diagnosis as an adjective. For example I would often describe myself as being "OCD" in my organizational habits, now I say that I’m very particular.
  • Remember that you do not know what people struggle with or how your words might impact someone.

Talking about mental illness in a respectful way is a small thing that can make a big difference in people’s lives. If at 12 people had spoken more sympathetically about my aunt I truly believe that I would have had an easier time accepting mental health treatment at age 15.  I was very secretive about being in treatment for mental health purposes until college. Slowly I began to feel more confident in confiding in friends about struggling with depression and anxiety. I was surprised to learn two things: they did not change how they looked at me. Also I learned I was not alone, many others confided in me of their own struggles, or struggles of a family member. 

Words cannot express my gratitude to the people in my life who I can be open about my mental health struggles with. Their understanding makes it easier for me to not have to hide appointments with therapists and psychiatrists and because of that I can focus solely on my treatment. I wish that everyone could have that same understanding of mental illness that I have been fortunate to see in the past few years. I ask everyone who reads this to strive to be someone who makes people in their lives more comfortable when they need to seek mental health care.

About the Author: Laura is 24 years old and currently lives in Boston. She graduated from Lesley University in Cambridge with a degree in social work and sociology. Laura currently works in the mental health field helping adults with chronic mental illness be successful in the community. She aspires to eventually get her Master's Degree in Social Work for both clinical and advocacy work.

By Laura Hickey, Project Self Care blogger.