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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

April 25, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Columns2014-2015

Mental health slurs are considered microaggressions

Hopefully at this point in your life, you have come to understand that using words like gay, retarded and ghetto as adverse adjectives is not appropriate. Associating these words with negative characteristics or situations is offensive.  Almost everyone knows what microaggressions are — even if they have not called them by a formal name — thanks to an abundance of educational presentations in the media, online and even here on campus. In many cases, these pejorative statements have become less common in the Ithaca community.

What irks me, though, is that microaggressions related to mental health are never discussed or explored. Saying “that’s so gay” or “you are retarded” is just as bad as saying “I am so OCD” or “the weather is bipolar.” All diminish a group of people. All reduce human characteristics to negative descriptors. All are cruel.

Flippantly using terms related to mental health is a form of ableism called mentalism, where people with mental illnesses are discriminated against. Many terms have become integrated into American culture that were originally ableist. Dumb, crazy, psycho and lame are just a few examples. These words have been morphed and now have less offensive meanings, making them acceptable to be used in daily conversation. In fact, many people do not realize that at one point they were insulting. I don’t want the same shift to happen in regard to mental illness.

Needing your notes to be organized does not mean you have obsessive compulsive disorder. Rain one day and sun the next is not comparable to the emotions of a person diagnosed on the bipolar spectrum. OCD and bipolar disorder, along with all other mental illnesses, are real and serious conditions. They should be treated that way.

I doubt that most people who claim to be “so OCD” are suffering from intrusive thoughts, anxiety or distress or are driven to act based on rigid self-set guidelines. In other words, they are not diagnosable by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. It is much more severe than needing your pencils lined up or washing your hands on a regular basis.

The most common reaction to my explanation about microaggressions is that I am being too sensitive. People are not actively trying to offend others, so I should relax. What I have to say to that is it does not matter if you are attempting to insult. The use of the word in an undesirable context shapes the meaning and, over time, it becomes a slur. Having a mental illness already has a negative connotation. Do not fuel the fire.