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Forget Mental Health, We Need to Talk About Mental Illness

06/03/2015 12:20 EDT | Updated 06/03/2016 05:59 EDT
Shutterstock / Low Chin Han

Over the past couple of years, I've had to come to terms with not only several mental illness diagnoses but also their associated stigma. Say what you will -- that there is no such thing as stigma associated with mental illness or that only those battling a mental illness say there actually is -- but when I have to mention, for whatever reason, that I have bipolar II disorder and other mental disorders, the look on the faces of those who hear this from me for the first time is memorable, to say the least.

The reactions have included awkward and/or stunned silences -- the kind where the other person opens then closes their mouth before finally stating, "It's so weird to get snow in May." Or a sudden realization that they have to plug the meter. Friends and family will even go so far as to argue that my diagnosis is not real, stating "you're fine," despite months and months of weekly testing along with stabilizing medications which have pinpointed (finally!) my specific disorders. If I had shared that I was diabetic, would my listener have responded the same way?

Obviously the mention of any illness, mental or physical, will induce various reactions from different people. It's not fair to say that mental illness holds the monopoly on shock and awe, as well as denial. But from first-hand experience, sharing that I've had to take sick days due to increased anxiety resulting from my bipolar disorder -- this is received far differently than when I've mentioned I had the stomach flu. Taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications has my listener looking for the closest neon red exit sign, whereas the mention of blood pressure medication is the opener for a discussion on the topic.

Illness of any kind is a tragedy, but saying you have a physical ailment is acceptable. Saying you have a mental illness however is unacceptable to the point where society has glossed over the word "illness" and made it less catastrophic by referring to it in media campaigns, foundation titles, and even medical settings as "mental health awareness." Semantics alone show the discomfort, denial and disapproval of mental illness. We cannot begin to overcome the fear of the existence of psychological disorders until we stop painting over the appropriate vocabulary with words meant to provide societal reassurance that mental illness is nothing more than disorders concocted by a group of people who only really like to have their shoes lined up just so in the front hall. There is so much more to OCD, PTSD, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (to name a few) than how they are represented. And this is why education is needed. A lot of education.

We don't need mental health awareness. We need mental illness awareness. When speaking of cancer, arthritis, pneumonia or heart disease, there is no allusion made that these devastating ailments are associated with health. Clearly if you're suffering from any of the above mentioned, you aren't healthy. However, reading the oh-so-frequent mantra "mental health awareness" promotes the idea that mental health is a more appropriate term than mental illness. Heart Month in February, which aims to raise awareness and funds for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, has a visionary mission which states: "Healthy lives free of heart disease and stroke. Together, we will make it happen."

Mental health awareness means what exactly then? Healthy lives free of mental illness?

Mental illness is not something you can prevent by eating right and exercising. Mental illness clings, gnaws, scratches and slashes at the soul preventing sufferers from living lives free of mental pain. Promoting "mental health awareness" alludes to those who are not battling for their lives that mental illness is not real. Mental health awareness does not imply the existence of mental illness. Quite the opposite. And by omitting the mention of specific disorders such as OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (and too many others), the public is kept unaware of the wide spectrum of mental illnesses and the varying degrees of their signs and symptoms.

Anything which will promote a positive agenda for mental illness sufferers and their respective ailments is clearly a good thing. So really, I should be grateful that the word "mental" has made it out there in mainstream consciousness even if it is followed by the word "health" as opposed to the word "illness."

But honestly, those of us who have a mental illness or know someone who does, we are the ones willing to speak of it while those who are not affected can hide behind the word "health" -- a safe word which shelters the masses from the reality and ugliness of mental illness. As long as mental health is the predominant term, even though mental health can truly only be applied to someone who doesn't even suffer from a mental illness, promoting and propelling awareness will remain stagnant and will continue to appeal to those who really need the education, as opposed to those of us who wish we didn't have the mental illness in the first place.

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