Our OECTA CLC team welcomes Isabella Visentin a second year teacher candidate from the University of Ottawa. Isabella’s passion for teaching commenced at a young age and flourished when she began teaching her beloved art form of dance nine years ago. Approximately five years ago, Isabella was diagnosed with anxiety.In her guest post below, Isabella will share her journey with anxiety and reflections of how the language associated with mental illness affected her life, and can for those of others. She would like to remind us that our words are impactful.
Unmasking the Words That Hurt
Inevitably, our short and toxic relationship didn’t last. When all was set and done, he asked to remain friends. I told him, “no”. I expressed to him that I would be uncomfortable being his friend. He believed that my discomfort stemmed from only being able to be his friend and not more. However, he was wrong. How could I remain friends with this person? This individual who believed that my tears defined me as weak. His ignorance was to blame for the inability for our friendship to last.
When I tried to explain myself to him, he did not understand. Rather, he decided to run to friends and began rumors that I was “mentally unstable”. If I hadn’t known what it felt like to be stabbed in the back before, I certainly did at this moment.
I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t let him and his friends’ words affect me; they did. They hurt more than ever. Imagine, people who had been friends with me for years, now concluded I was “psychotic”. Though, I did not bottle up all my emotions to prove that I am the opposite of what he believes, and am in fact, “strong”. I did cry; I did get upset!
You know why? I realized that I do not want to be like him. In fact, I take pride in my actions that day, as I had the courage to take off my mask and unveil how I was truly feeling. Regardless of what he and they may think, I know who I am. I am not weak; I am strong. I wholeheartedly understand that it takes a strong individual to show their peers how they are truly feeling – to shed the weight of their mask and let their true story be told.
It’s significant, that as a society we come to this realization that it takes strength to publicize how we are truly feeling. It takes strength to admit, “Hey, I am NOT alright, and I need a friend and/or help”.
Language And Stigma
In order for those experiencing mental illness to find the strength to be open, we must eliminate its stigma. This begins by taking caution in our vocabulary; it is our words that form the stigma of mental illness. Our words are POWERFUL, and if used incorrectly, can be detrimental to the lives of our peers.
It is the stigma that causes our peers to hide and not ask for help. That fear of judgment prompts individuals to hide behind their masks so, that they will never be mistakenly labeled.
Those experiencing mental illnesses worry that their peers’ perceptions of them will be altered. They hope that their peers will continue viewing them in the highest respects, and not perceive them as the misconceptions of their mental illnesses. However, in the language, we use when discussing those with mental illness, we only heighten their fears. By labeling those with mental illnesses with derogatory language, such as crazy, weak, psychotic, mentally unstable, etc., we not only make them feel unaccepted and inferior, but we rid them of their true persona. This demonstrates that we are crudely characterizing mental illness.
In addition, when we identify an individual by the illness itself, we are failing to separate the illness from the person. James Beirne expounds in his blog, A Schizophrenic Man or a Man with Schizophrenia?, “A person is not the sum total of the symptoms that they experience, these can vary greatly from individual to individual and nor are all individuals always symptomatic” (2012). This means that we must not label those undergoing mental illnesses, by their illness. For example, we must not name an individual suffering from schizophrenia, a “schizophrenic”. By doing so, we are implying that they are the sum of all symptoms associated with schizophrenia. Their mental illness does not define them; it is only one aspect of their life.
Often, stereotypes of mental illness are perpetuated through our misuse of language when addressing our own personalities and/or habits. Being ignorant of the harm that our words procreate, we carelessly toss them around in the staff rooms, hallways, classrooms, and in our environments.
For example, we frequently hear our peers complaining, “I am so OCD”. Simply, based on the notion that they are “Danny Tanner-Level clean”, as they enjoy their belongings in a certain order and/or position. In truth, this abuses the term,”OCD”, as it preserves a false definition and representation of the illness it capitulates. Alyssa Raiola titled her article, “Why You Need to Stop Saying You’re So OCD“, as she lists reasons why we must put an end to our ignorance. She begins by explaining that it’s important to recognize the “D” in “OCD”, as it demonstrates that it is a disorder. OCD is a clinical obsession that is unwanted! Those with OCD do not want to have the intrusive thoughts that interfere with their everyday lives. So, unlike those “Danny Tanners” who enjoy cleaning their room every day, those with OCD do not find pleasure in their obsessions; in fact, Dr. Jonathan S. Abramowitz explains that they create much anxiety, distress, and uncertainty for the person. Along with their obsessions, they enact in compulsions, which they do to rid of their fears. With this, it is evident how Danny Tanner-Level clean differs from an individual with OCD. Therefore, the misuse of OCD and other terms associated with mental illness, such as “depressed”, “bipolar”, “psycho”, etc. are incredibly insensitive to those with mental illnesses, and we must strive to rid them from our vocabulary when they are not being used in proper context.
Where to Start
With that being said, it is significant that we change our words! We must learn the appropriate language when discussing individuals with mental illnesses.
The American Psychiatric Association offers good examples of preferred language to use that is sensitive, and will not feed the stigma of mental illness. The following are some of their examples:
Discussing an Individual with a Mental Illness
Preferred: She is a person with schizophrenia.
Not preferred: She is schizophrenic.
Avoid Using Harmful Language
Preferred: She has a mental health illness. She has a substance use disorder.
Not preferred: She suffers from mental illness. She’s a drug abuser.
Below you will find a resource from the Bell Let’s Talk Toolkit that also offers appropriate language options when discussing mental illness.
The Bottom Line
Through my experience being victim to the detrimental language used by my peers to define myself and my anxiety, I know first hand that the language we use when discussing mental illness is powerful. If used inappropriately, it can heavily contribute to the stigma emplaced upon mental illness. This creates a barrier for those experiencing mental illness, as they will be fearful of removing their masks and seeking help. For this reason, we as a community must educate ourselves on the appropriate language to use when discussing mental illness.
The OECTA CLC team is deeply grateful to the Ontario Elementary Catholic Teacher’s Association and the Ottawa Catholic School Board for the opportunity to design and launch this Mental Health project. We appreciate the outpouring of support and emotion our colleagues in classrooms and schools shared with us through the project. In January, the project was unexpectedly suspended due to an Occasional Teacher shortage. While hopeful the project might soon resume, the essence of the project’s mandate is now unattainable by the wrap-up date of April 18. Making this post the project’s final. We plan to continue working in schools and communities to end the stigma related to Mental Illness and encourage you to do the same. Because, together, by asking “Hey, are you doing alright?” and responding with kindness and compassion, staff and students who suffer from various forms of mental illness will feel safer in removing their masks and seeking the help they need. In this spirit, you, along with Julie G., Tanya, Julie N., Chris and me will continue the mission of the project. Thank-you.
During the 2017-18 year, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education, is supporting Collaborative Learning Community (CLC) projects. One CLC project receiving funds is “Hey, Are You Doing Alright? Taking Off Masks, Ending Stigmas, Moving On.” It gives voice to the struggles and hidden impact of mental illnesses on teaching and learning. Project team members are: Julie Godard, Tanya Mirault, Julie Nihmey, and Chris Nihmey, Canadian Ambassador for Mental Illness and Mental Health. Together, we, by removing our masks and sharing our experiences, can heal ourselves and others and in the process diminish the stigmas attached to mental illness. This post is the seventh and final in a series of project posts.