Words Mean Things: Mental Health Edition

blog-mental-health-638x425I’ve debated posting this for two and a half-ish days because I wasn’t sure that I wanted my first real post to be something so heavy and personal. My plan was to write a few light hearted pieces that were charming and whatnot to (hopefully) suck you in, and then dive into some meatier topics. As is often the case, a bunch of ignorant comments led me to write this, and now I’m going to go ahead and post because this is important.

This post is inspired by the incredible braveness and encouragement of JT Eberhard and Amanda Knief, a talk given by Michaelyn Eberhart, and a bunch of ignorant assholes on the internet.

Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to hear Michaelyn Eberhart speak in Omaha on the topic of “Why Religion is not a Mental Illness.” Truth be told, this talk was a LOT of why I wanted to attend Omaha Atheists’ “Activism in Action” day of workshops. This is a subject near and dear to my heart, one that I had been looking for a persuasive way to argue with those claiming that religion is indeed a mental illness.

Michaelyn nailed her points. Keep in mind that these are from my scratchy notes, and although some are direct quotes from the presentation, some aren’t and were much more eloquent when originally stated.

  • Religion doesn’t meet the mental illness diagnosis criteria as laid out in the DSM 5.
  • A mental illness impairs functioning in some way in the day to day.
  • When referring to religious people as “delusional,” we are not using the definition of “delusion” in the way it would be to diagnose. We need to draw a line between the way we use “delusion” in daily language and diagnosable delusions.
  • When “God speaks to people,” the voice of God is sought out, and the occurrence of this is positively reinforced within the person’s community, be it friends, family, church members, etc. Auditory hallucinations are not sought out – they just happen.
  • Being irrational doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill.
  • Religious people have the capacity to be rational. Mentally ill people don’t always have the capacity to do so.
  • This argument is wrong and insulting for people that have a mental illness.

These are all excellent points, and as soon as Michaelyn’s talk is up and online, I’ll post a link because you should all watch it. However, for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the last point.

This argument is wrong and insulting for people that have a mental illness.

I am a member of two meet in meatspace freethought groups, and numerous online secular groups. Guess how many times someone in any of those venues has said something along the lines of:

“People that evangelize belong in a place for the mentally ill.”

“Religious people are crazy.”

“Christians are delusional.”

“Anyone who thinks that the Earth is 6,000 years old is clearly mentally ill.”

Hi, my name is Amanda and I have an anxiety disorder. A full-fledged panic attack inducing, shaking, heart racing, irrational thinking, has the capacity to completely fuck my life over, anxiety disorder. It manifests in a variety of ways and in a variety of different situations. Some are predictable and I can take necessary steps to diminish the effect, and some are entirely out of the blue. I suppose that the symptoms that accompany my anxiety disorder could be described as “crazy” and “mentally ill” and even by some as “delusional.”

Do you see where the problem lies with referring to anyone that believes in a god or religion, or who just fucking disagrees with you, with terms that are used to refer to mental illness?

When used in this way, you are taking the word referring to the mental illness and using it as a way to negatively describe the beliefs and practices of someone you disagree with. In doing so, you’re also insulting people with mental illnesses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, that’s one in four adults that are living with a mental disorder that you’re insulting. It’s no different than using “gay” or “retard” to refer to someone that you think is wrong or less intelligent or repulsive.

People with mental disorders don’t choose to have them. They don’t choose to behave the way they do, they don’t choose the symptoms. Using things that are out of their control as a way to insult a group is wrong and hurtful.

And why? There are over one million words in the English language. Is it that difficult to find a few to accurately describe the actions of others without insulting an entire population of people?

We call ourselves the freethinkers, the skeptics, the intellectuals, the brights, yet are we living up to any of those names if we continue to purposefully use terminology incorrectly? If we don’t bother to do the research to find out what we are actually saying when we say someone is delusional or psychotic or whatever other psychological term people want to throw around and misuse? If we use the vernacular definition of a term as a way to prove a clinical condition? All we are doing is perpetuating the stigma that goes along with having a mental illness and that’s not cool.

So what can we do to improve?

  1. Choose our words carefully. Words mean things. If we are going to critique something, we should use facts and correct terminology. Go ahead and make your arguments against religion or Christianity, but do it well.
  2. Educate others. Let them know what clinical terms actually mean and their correct usage.
  3. Speak up. One way to reduce the stigma that goes along with mental illness is for people to say something when people are cutting down people with mental disorders or using mental health terminology as a way to insult others.
  4. Hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold others to. I’ve seen time and time again where those in the freethought community use the same logical fallacies and kinds of arguments that we criticize the religious for using.
  5. Show compassion. One in four adults suffers from a mental disorder. That includes your friends, family, and co-workers, even if you don’t know it. Show them a little love and support – it will mean more than you know.

We can and should do better.

Peace and love kids, I’m out.