Mental health is something I hear about a lot. Do self-care, practice wellness, try breathing and so on. All of these things are helpful in spreading awareness of the importance of taking care of your mind and body, but there is something missing from this discussion: how to approach talking about mental disorders.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety disorder since I was sixteen years old, it’s tiring, debilitating, ugly at times and a constant battle. But on the outside, I seem perfectly happy. I’m involved in school, take rigorous classes and spend time with friends and family. So when my friends joke about disorders like anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders and so on, they don’t realize it’s hurting me.
Unlike some other diseases, mental illnesses aren’t easy to spot and it is virtually impossible to guess who has them. The person who seems high-functioning and like they have their life together may in reality be battling something. That’s why the conversation around mental health and joking about conditions need to change.
For example, many of my friends say things like “I’m so OCD about my room,” “I’m totally having a panic attack because there’s no more iced coffee at Collins” or “I’ve gained five pounds now and I’m totally going ano (anorexic).” Beyond these jokes being in poor taste, they’re extremely harmful to those of us who are struggling with any of these conditions.
These types of jokes trivialize the conditions they are joking around with. If people make situations like panic attacks seem like casual everyday occurrences, the reality of panic attacks gets warped. People who actually have them are made to feel gaslit and undermined. Panic attacks aren’t feeling a bit nervous or upset — you physically feel the walls closing in on you, your heart is racing, you feel like you can’t breathe. It’s horrifying. Joking about panic attacks or anxiety disorder, especially by people who don’t have the condition, is counterproductive in educating our peers about mental illness. Nearly one in five adults struggle with mental illness, which is why now more than ever we need to be more conscious and thoughtful about how we approach these topics.
Beyond being invalidating, it also discourages those of us with mental illnesses from opening up for fear of being ridiculed. If my disease is a source of comedy and something that isn’t a big deal, then why would I feel comfortable opening up to my friends about my struggles? The mental health community faces stigma all the time, which is painful and a huge barrier to receiving treatment. Jokes and teasing means people with these disorders gain more internalized stigma and start to hate themselves for their disorder, think they’re wrong for feeling how they do and feel embarrassed about receiving help.
I also recognize it’s hard because the point of comedy is to make fun of different aspects of culture and society, and if we start policing comedy we run into dangerous territory. But, I think there’s a time and a place for certain jokes and a lot of it depends on who is saying it. For example, if it is empowering for someone who has a mental disorder to joke about it, such as Pete Davidson, then more power to them. But, when people who have no diagnosis, and no experience of mental disorders or pain, start to use others’ diseases as jokes, that’s where I see it crossing a line. At that point, who is it empowering? Who is it helping? All it is doing is hurting people who have the disorder, warping understanding for people who don’t have it, increasing stigma around the disorders themselves and preventing people who have them from opening up.
So let’s be a bit more considerate when discussing mental health and disorders. If we start to be more mindful and aware of how jokes and misinformation can hurt our peers, then people would feel more comfortable opening up about their struggles, help would seem more accessible and there would be a greater understanding of mental health in general.
Anna Tolkien CM ’24 is a literature and film dual major. She loves her pugs, creative writing and iced coffee.