4 Ways You Can Be A Mental Health Adjective Ally

Read Time: 7 Minutes 30 seconds

Last Thursday, I got my hair done – the first time in two and a half years since it has been professionally colored.

My stylist was chattering away about how she had recently signed up for the online Masterclass series. For those who aren’t familiar with what this is, Masterclass is a paid subscription service which grants you access to educational videos on a variety of subject areas, taught by experts in their field.

Amidst telling me about the latest video she had watched, she suddenly blurts out “anything to do with books, i’m just dyslexic”.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve chosen to surround myself with an online community of mental health professionals and educators, whom have helped me to recognize instances such as this. Or perhaps, it was my moral spidey senses tingling. Regardless, her comment didn’t sit right with me.

Once she’d finished her sentence, I asked:

Are you actually dyslexic?”

Much to my relief, she replied that she was – visual forms of education have always been her preferred way of learning, as books and words on paper get a bit muddled for her.

It’s easy to say now that if she’d said she wasn’t dyslexic, I would have noted how it’s not okay to use a learning disorder as a descriptor or as an adjective, to get your point across. But who’s to say I wouldn’t have shied away from doing so too, given my track record as a shrinking violet when it comes to conflict.

While I certainly recognize that this situation could have turned out much differently, I also recognize that I am no saint, nor judge, jury or executioner, when it comes to social justice and mental health matters. I openly admit that in my past I have used mental health disorders as adjectives, predominantly Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

It’s uncomfortable for me to admit that, but something tells me it’s even more uncomfortable for those who live with these disorders, whom may have experienced people using their disorder as a descriptor. For that I am apologetic and remain humble within my own discomfort and throughout educating myself on the topic.

For many of the people I interact with online who live with a mental health disorder, their daily struggles are often compounded – one step forward, two steps back. By using mental health and learning disorders as adjectives, you downplay the struggles which people living with a mental disorder experience on a daily basis, and downplay the time and the energy they put in to becoming healthier versions of themselves. It’s more than likely you have no idea what their lived experience is like, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be calling your friend a “schizo”. When I used OCD as an adjective, I certainly had no idea of the lived experiences of someone diagnosed with OCD. I was ignorant.

When using these disorders as adjectives, it essentially deems them as normal, acceptable behavior when used by yourself and others. This can be hurtful and unhealthy – the more people use them, the more widespread they become. Often this language is used in a hurtful way towards oneself or others, and has negative connotations. I have been around others who have used this language before, and it was never to indicate something positive or supportive. Likewise, my own use of the term OCD as a descriptor, was often used when I was referring to something I was doing in an obsessive, unhealthy manner.

While my hair stylist indicated she has a learning disorder, not a mental health disorder (though she might, not discrediting if she does), I believe the use of mental health disorders as adjectives and the aftermath of using them as such, also apply to using learning disorders as adjectives.

I’m no mental health professional, and I will never claim to be one. I can’t lay claim to any lived experience in terms of people using my mental health disorder or learning disorder as an adjective, because I don’t live with a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder (I do think I exhibit signs of someone with high-functioning anxiety, but that’s just my personal opinion). I also don’t speak on behalf of someone with an mental health disorder.

Through my own exploration and education, I have learned a few ways in which we can all become better allies (myself included) in curving the usage of mental disorders and learning disorders as figures of speech. I also have experience working with the public (a lot of it). While those interactions may not have necessarily been mental health related (despite my position as a cashier at a grocery store and a barista, often doubling as unofficial therapy for the people I encountered), it taught me a lot about what it means to have productive conversations towards a collective end goal. Without further delay, here are 4 ways you can become a mental health adjective ally.

1. Educate Yourself

While my informal education has been via Instagram, I’ve learned a lot through connecting with other accounts – I suggest you check it out too. Many of these folks are therapists, psychologists, counselors, or people just sharing their experience with others about what it’s like to live with a mental health disorder or learning disorder. Personally, I really love the account @wordshug. He lives with OCD, is constantly educating me through his content on what it’s like to live with OCD, and why his mental health disorder (and mental health disorders in general) isn’t something to be used as an adjective or descriptor. He’s also very entertaining, which is another reason I keep coming back!

2. Have Conversations with Others

So you heard your friend say “i’m so OCD because I wash my hands a million times a day”. You could let it be, not say anything. Or you could do what I did with my hair stylist and ask them if they legitimately have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When approaching someone, do so in a friendly, non-direct way. The intent is not to make them feel bad, but to make them aware. It’s possible they didn’t even think about it when they said it (not a permissible excuse, but this is your chance to educate them). You don’t have to attack them, you don’t have to be aggressive with them – approach it as you would any other regular conversation you would have with your friend. And when/if they ask why, you’ll hopefully have already educated yourself enough to inform them.

3. Use Alternate Words to Get Your Point Across

In referring back to having a conversation with a friend or family member about their OCD comment, you could ask them to consider using a different word or phrase when describing their action – “I wash my hands too much” would have probably gotten the point across just as well, without using an mental disorder as a descriptor. I think that people perhaps use mental disorders in their sentences not only to get their point across but also for a shock factor.

The exception to this would be if you live with a mental health disorder or a learning disorder and you are referring to yourself – that is your choice, and yours alone.

4. Read the Situation

Something which I have learned in therapy (which I apply to my own overthinking, and emotional reactions) is that even if you don’t react to a situation while it is actively taking place, this doesn’t mean that the situation is lost forever or case closed. Sometimes taking a step back, becoming aware of the situation, even if you don’t say anything, can be helpful too. This is especially helpful for people who either react too quickly and later regret their actions or tend to avoid conflict because it makes them uncomfortable (I am a mix of both of these things, depending on the situation). The next day you may feel better prepared emotionally to address it with your friend or loved one.

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