School hallways, a line for movie tickets and the workplace are opportunities for reducing stigma
and improving understanding following an insensitive comment about mental illness.
For example: A classmate rails on you for speaking a mile a minute, capping it off by saying, “Stop acting like a maniac.”
As a person with bipolar disorder, you might feel hurt by this remark. After all, you have been taking your medication and trying to be attentive to signs of mania, but you’re anxious about an exam following lunch. The classmate is a friend so you want to let her know the comment hurt your feelings. But just how do you accomplish that?
Social relationship expert Janice Poplack, LCSW, director of Social Work at Menninger, notes challenges like this may be common for individuals with a mental illness.
“If someone makes a pejorative statement, it’s best to confront it directly in a respectful and courteous way. Strive to be curious about why the person making the remark used the unkind words. This will help you share something about yourself and your condition while giving your friend an opportunity to mend the situation,” Poplack says.
She suggests an appropriate response might be: “I recognize I was speaking rapidly without listening to you. I suffer from bipolar disorder, which involves swings in my mood, but I am working hard on managing it. What really has me uptight is the test I have after lunch.”
If your tendency is to be more direct in your relationship with this friend, another response might go like this: “Do you realize that using ‘maniac’ is like calling me ‘crazy?’ Identifying me or anyone with a brain disorder is mean. Just because I was talking a mile a minute isn’t a sign that I cannot manage my bipolar symptoms. I work hard at that.”
Mental illness affects one in five people at some point in their life. So chances are we all know someone who has a mental illness or whose family has dealt with brain disorders such as depressive disorders, anxiety, ADHD or addictions.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to talk about their situation outside the family. Consequently, words like “maniac,” “looney” and “schizo” get used without an understanding that they can be deeply hurtful. Misconceptions about these words are often learned from inaccurate use in films, advertising and sometimes within our families and social circles, Poplack explains.
“Speaking up about what’s true for you and how you feel helps reduce stress that can build up if you don’t address disparaging comments,” she adds. “It also shows your friends you are curious and willing to have a conversation that results in improved understanding.”