The portrayal of mental health in the media and wider world has never been favorable, but in recent years the connotations surrounding our community have diverged into two paths: we’ve become monsters and we’ve become jokes.
The demonization of mental illness is present largely in the entertainment industry (e.g. in television shows like Criminal Minds) as well as selective representation in the news (e.g. when attention is offered only if mental illness is condemned as responsible for a tragedy of some sort). Unfortunately, this is an issue we have less control over. We do, however, have the power to change how mental health is laughed at and belittled in our community.
For those of you who don’t know, in the last couple of years “triggered” jokes have been widely used by teens after the term became a popular meme. Although a lot of people find it harmless, for those of us who actually have triggers for anxiety disorders, PTSD, even substance addictions, etc., this takes a surprising toll on our sense of self-worth and validity. For me personally, when someone says “I’m so triggered” because the actor they had a crush on just got married or they didn’t do well on a math test, it plays to all of my insecurities. In eighth grade and into freshman year, triggered jokes actually were a trigger for me: they ramped up my anxiety, fed my self-deprecation and self-hatred, and ultimately left me in a depressive low when the panic left and the invalidation hit.
Then those jokes turned into declarations of “I’m gonna kill myself” in the most random and most trivial circumstances without any genuine intention, and those were equally as bad—people said it so frequently “kms” became (and still is) a common abbreviation for texting/social media. As I reached a place where I was completely comfortable sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental illness, those jokes stopped being as strong a trigger and just made me angry. A lot of the time, in situations where I felt safe and secure enough to do so, I’d call people out on it.
Thankfully, the jokes seemed to die down toward the end of last school year and so did the constant invalidation, but when I came back this year as a sophomore, I heard “triggered” recklessly and unnecessarily thrown about on the first day of school and “kill myself” more times than I could count. The ridicule is still alive and thriving.
But beyond jokes, there are other forms of invalidation and degradation a lot of people struggling with mental illness are affected by, even if indirectly. Similarly to how “triggered” is flung around without much thought, the more general misuse of language is something that runs rampant today: diminishing mental illnesses by turning them into adjectives and even slurs. By this I mean saying things like “the weather is bipolar” when the weather can’t actually have a disorder, or even weaponizing the term by accusing so-and-so of having OCD because they keep their room organized, calling someone crazy because they do one thing that doesn’t fit in the status quo, deeming someone retarded because their grades are slipping, and so on.
So even though both perceptions do nothing but harm, there are actions we can take to lessen the blow and empower each other and our youth. The simplest is awareness. I’m sure that everyone who reads this is already aware of the reality of mental health, but some might not be aware of the trivialization and ridicule: merely recognizing that this is an issue that invalidates a large group of people is enough to get the ball rolling. From there, it’s about educating others, whether they’re people who are unaware of the jokes and misuse of language or people who are guilty of both. For example, explaining that “crazy” and “retarded” are both ableist slurs and “triggered” is not your word to reclaim if you don’t have genuine triggers are easy and relevant places to start. It’s up to us to teach our community—friends, families, peers, teachers, students—that mental health and illness is not something to be afraid of or something to laugh at, so we can lift each other up instead of tearing each other down.
By Caden Hansen, Sophomore, Woodside High School and SafeSpace Youth Advisory Board Member