Stop calling people ‘psycho’ for all our sakes


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“Psycho” bride threatens to call off her wedding HOURS before walking down the aisle when she can’t fit into her dress  because she didn’t try it on once before the big day.

This is the headline of a “news” story in the Daily Mail that left me bristling. It reminded me of a recent conversation with my partner about a tendency of many men – particularly when they’re younger – to dismiss potential partners as “psycho” or “nuts”. 

What constituted such derogatory dismissal? Essentially benign behaviour such as showing too much interest too soon, pulling a guy up on flaky behaviour, displaying insecurity or being seen as “needy”. 

And what about the “psycho” bride?

“Sophie can become ‘psycho Sophie’ when she doesn’t get her own way,” her husband reportedly said. “She storms off in a mood and the mood will escalate to one thing then another. She will just keep an argument going for hours and hours.”   

OK, so moments of emotional immaturity or a lack of skill in dealing with her feelings in certain situations, is being conflated with being “psycho”.

Come on, enough. It’s oh so casual, and yet really problematic for all of us.

Chances are you know someone with mental illness given about one in every five Australians experience mental illness every year and at least 45 per cent of us will in our lifetime.

These figures seem to be on the rise.

As a new report reveals, the proportion of young people likely to have a serious mental illness rose from 18.7 per cent in 2012 to 22.8 per cent in 2016.

Any of us who know someone with a mental illness knows they are not one-dimensional, defined only by the illness (just as someone isn’t “diabetes”, but has diabetes), they have just as many positive attributes as the next person (in fact, some of the best people I know have mental illness, and their illness has only made them more insightful, compassionate and wise) and their experience of it has nothing to do with emotional immaturity.

When we use words like he or she is “psycho” we are not only confusing “psychosis” (which refers to psychotic mental illness) and “psychopath” (which relates to extreme violence and antisocial behaviour, not mental illness), and conflating mental illness with unrelated bad behaviours, we are using decidedly negative language that only serves to further stigmatise mental illness and muddy our understanding of it.

Consider one study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, which looked at how mental illness is portrayed in children’s television shows.

Of the shows that referenced mental illness, the most commonly used terms were “crazy”,”mad” and “losing your mind”.

“The six consistently mentally ill characters were almost entirely devoid of admirable attributes,” the authors wrote. “Young viewers are being socialised into stigmatising conceptions of mental illness.” 

No wonder we throw such words around willy-nilly, with no sense that they are insidious.

“Misconceptions and myths about mental health are unfortunately common and it can have significant consequences: research has shown that people who read negative articles about mental illness expressed more negative attitudes toward people with a mental illness,” explains the American Psychiatric Association.

It also means people are less likely to get help when they need it.

Only about 35 per cent (or fewer, according to some sources) of those with a mental illness seek help. 

According to Mindframe: “Many people experiencing mental illness delay seeking help because they are frightened by the illness and fear stigma and discrimination. Reducing the stigma will encourage more people to seek help early.”

How do we do this?

“Positive and hopeful attitudes of family, friends, service providers, employers, and other members of the community toward people with mental illness are critical to ensuring quality of life for people with mental illness and supporting recovery,” advises the Department of Health. 

Also, we remember that the words we use matter.

The language we use around mental illness “plays a big role in keeping alive stereotypes, myths and stigma”, Mindframe explains.

Sophie isn’t a “psycho”, the girl who shows insecurity isn’t “nuts” and just because someone displays emotional immaturity or poor behaviour does not mean they have a mental illness.

A little more kindness in the way we use words and a little more consideration before throwing them around not only gives those with actual mental illness the respect they deserve, it helps us understand an issue that, in one way or other, affects us all.

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