Over the past few years, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety have been taken more seriously and have become more accepted by our culture, resulting in more widespread awareness and sensitivity. This is a huge improvement as people become more tuned in to the struggles of the mentally ill and become more sensitive to their feelings. Just as using the word gay as a pejorative has begun to fade from the vernacular, more people are beginning to understand the weight of the words depression and anxiety and are therefore treating them accordingly. Unfortunately, this shift in what is acceptable to say has created a dangerously misguided flipside, specifically when well-meaning people discourage others from saying that they feel depressed or anxious when they “don’t really mean it.”
The problem with this mode of thinking is that it frames mental illness as some kind of exclusive club — one that only the authentically mentally ill can be a part of. It is a bullish, cruel way of thinking that asks people to prove their own feelings of helplessness, paranoia and so on. The irony, of course, is that the people who often decry the inauthentic mentally ill are those who claim to be sensitive to the subject and are simply trying to protect the integrity of the term mentally ill.
This dissonance — from people who ostensibly want to be sensitive to the mentally ill and try to dictate who is allowed to be sick — comes from the idea that overusing these words or using them frivolously downplays their seriousness, but this concern is unfounded. If someone says they are depressed because of doing poorly on a test, they are not diminishing the weight of depression, but hyperbolically expressing their disappointment. For example, someone can hyperbolically say they would murder their boss without downplaying the crime of murder. The much more present danger is that making mental illness an exclusive title discourages people from coming forward about their own feelings. It creates a hostile environment for people who doubt the validity of their emotions — people who may only feel marginally depressed or anxious but who would benefit massively from treatment.
It is vital that we create a welcoming, inclusive environment for the mentally ill, and the current politically correct culture may be a major threat to that. If we allow the same language policing tactics that have come to define discussions of race, gender and sexuality, these acceptability barriers will only serve to create a hostile, inhospitable culture.
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