What It Feels Like When Your Mental Health Condition Becomes a Punchline: ‘It Actually Drives People Further Into Hiding'

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You may sometimes make what you think is a light-hearted joke about mental health conditions like saying someone is "acting bipolar," or claiming you have OCD, simply because you like to keep things tidy.

But if you don't actually have obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder, those jokes can be offensive to people who are actually living with the illnesses.

"It's a natural human tendency to try to explain behavior and characteristics that you don't understand, and to label it," says Dr. Carol A. Mathews, chair in the department of psychiatry and director of the Center for OCD, Anxiety and Related Disorders at the University of Florida.

"Unfortunately, I think because people don't really understand psychiatric illness, the labeling is often inappropriate."

And with the growing interest in mental health, self-diagnosing, and diagnosing others, without a medical background has become more socially acceptable, Mathews adds. Still, it's important to be mindful of the language you are using because of how it may impact others, she says.

"Generally when people are talking about these symptoms, they're not talking about them in a positive way," says Mathews.

"It actually drives people with OCD in particular, but other disorders [as well], further into hiding sometimes," she says, out of fear of people misunderstanding their symptoms.

'One of the hardest parts about living with bipolar disorder is all of the misinformation'

Gabe Howard, podcast host of "Inside Mental Health" and author of "Mental Illness is an Ass----," was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003, and he believes "one of the hardest parts about living with bipolar disorder is all of the misinformation."

"Society believes that I am unintelligent, incapable, that I need a caregiver, I can't get better, could be violent, and I'm argumentative," says Howard.

"It is not lost on me that almost everything I do that people find disagreeable, they say, 'Well that's because of his bipolar disorder.'"

Other people's opinions of bipolar disorder, often communicated through jokes, began to shape Howard's views on his own condition.

"I started to believe that all my thoughts, feelings and opinions weren't my own, but were a part of this larger illness. What's difficult there is that some of them are," including mania and depression, he says.

Thankfully, he no longer feels this way. But when someone makes his condition the punchline of a joke, it's difficult for Howard: "When you say 'acting bipolar,' I know, because I'm an intelligent person, that you're saying something negative."

"Many symptoms are negative, nobody is denying that. I'm not saying that there's positives to bipolar disorder, but I am absolutely saying that people who live with bipolar disorder have positives," he adds.

"Now when you say, 'you're acting bipolar,' it really makes it sound like you're saying any person with bipolar disorder is acting in some bad fashion, and that's painful."

The complicated dilemma: 'We want to be treated like everyone else'

Yet, Howard struggles with how he feels about jokes about his condition, especially considering the crude humor that has become a norm in American culture.

"Our culture is such that we make fun of lots of things," including a time when friends of his jokingly said their kids would get diabetes for eating too much Halloween candy, he says.

"I'm not saying that it's right or wrong. I'm saying that American culture and our language is such that we make fun of everything, and that we change the definitions of words all of the time for comic relief."

This complicates things for Howard because he says, "people with mental illness often say, 'We want to be treated like everyone else.' Well, all other illnesses are generally brought up in some form of comedy."

3 tips for shifting your language around mental health conditions

Still, it's probably best to refrain from using language that can be potentially offensive to others. So, when you feel yourself referring to someone as bipolar or OCD, consider describing their behaviors before labeling them, Mathews says.

Here are a few alternatives that you can use instead, from Mathews and Howard:

  • Say you're distracted versus saying you have ADHD
  • Describe someone's behavior as erratic before saying they're 'acting bipolar'
  • Let others know that you're worried or can't stop thinking about something instead of saying you're obsessive

    Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that BPD can also refer to borderline personality disorder.

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