BY ABBIE TUSCHMAN
“Oh my god, I’m so OCD. I love color-coding.”
“My math teacher is really bipolar.”
“Watching the last season of ‘Game of Thrones’ was an emotionally traumatizing experience.”
It’s difficult to go a whole day in high school without overhearing someone misuse a mental health term. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder and psychological trauma— among countless other mental health issues— are frequently reduced to “quirky” behavior or used as a form of hyperbole. While more people nowadays might be familiar with these psychological terms, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more informed about their meanings.
Rather than promoting mental health awareness, the increased use— and misuse— of mental health terminology in casual conversations can perpetuate misconceptions about mental illnesses and invalidate the experiences of those who have them. The pervasiveness of this issue indicates a dire need for greater mental health education.
While people have been cracking jokes about “psychos” for decades, “dissociating” is a term that’s relatively new to the scene of relatable mental health humor.
Dissociating is often used by social media users, primarily on Twitter, as a synonym for “spacing out” and is even seen by some as a desirable experience. But daydreaming or getting lost in thought fall only on the mild side of the dissociation spectrum. Tweeting about dissociation like it’s a pastime shows a lack of awareness of those who suffer from involuntary dissociation and dissociative disorders.
When one experiences a more severe form of dissociation, they may feel a loss of control over their own body or might even develop multiple personalities. Dissociative disorders often result from psychological trauma, such as chronic childhood abuse or military combat. The romanticization of a coping mechanism for trauma is not only hurtful to those who struggle with dissociative disorders, but shows a need for mental health awareness beyond the more common depression and anxiety disorders.
That isn’t to say that jokes about mental health can’t be helpful. In fact, some studies show that it can reduce mental health stigma. But using mental illness to show off a “quirky” personality isn’t humor, it’s just offensive. Actress Mara Wilson, who has become a mental health advocate since her early days playing “Matilda,” has pointed out the similarities between misunderstanding mental illnesses and physical illnesses.
People laugh about alphabetizing books being “OCD,” but few joke about having fibromyalgia when their muscles are sore. Both are invisible illnesses. Both can be debilitating. Why is joking about one more acceptable than the other?
Often, the misuse of mental health terms doesn’t stem from bad intentions. It simply indicates a need for greater mental health awareness. And with terms like “schizo” and “PTSD” still being thrown around carelessly, mental health education must not only be more prevalent but should cover more mental illnesses. Most people understand that being sad once in a while doesn’t denote clinical depression. Yet it still isn’t common knowledge that OCD is not an adjective nor a way to describe someone’s tidy habits.
Instead of attacking those on social media that are ignorant about mental illness, it would be more helpful to redirect them to informative articles or to use their misunderstanding as an opportunity for respectful and educational dialogue. And because jokes about mental illness have become so common among teenagers, a group that suffers from low treatment rates for mental disorders, high schools should play their part and mandate mental health education.
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