Why humor surrounding mental illness is either the best or the worst thing in existence

“I’m really OCD about my notes being organized.”

“Gosh I’m so dyslexic; I can’t believe I made that typo!”

“My daughter is being really anorexic lately; she won’t eat anything.”.

“Sometimes I can’t stand how bipolar that woman is.”

Welcome to the modern world, where we’re exposed to messages telling us that it’s okay to use weighty medical terms out of context! Even though 1 in 4 people has a mental illness, it’s impossible we’ll offend anyone around us, plus we get bonus points if we accurately diagnose someone by accident!

Let’s take a little tour of the messages behind this distorted mindset, shall we?

Each day, we are inundated with social messages regarding what behavior is appropriate and what is downright wrong… When it comes to figuring out just what society deems acceptable, slang is one of the most telling features. From hipsters to hippies, in groovy times and in cool times, slang reflects major groups and cultural values.

On the bright side, when people use mental illnesses as slang adjectives, they prove that they do in fact know the names of some disorders. However, in doing so, they also prove that they aren’t considering how personally affected those around them are.

One of my high school friends once jokingly described a teacher of ours as “too bipolar” for her liking; when my friend found out our teacher actually had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, she was noticeably ashamed to have chosen this word.

It’s not enough to shy away from potentially offensive phrases only around those one suspects of having mental illness; after all, 1 in 4 is personally afflicted by mental illness, but 4 in 4 are affected by mental illnesses in some way. Verdict: it might be time to dust off our 80’s slang and stop offending people with mental illness slang.

Mental illness names are often used in attempts at humor, whether on a personal scale or a large business scale (just look at this controversial “Anna Rexia” Halloween costume or this bulimia t-shirt from “Cyanide & Happiness”). While people who say they “are OCD” about something usually don’t mean any harm, companies that capitalize on mental illness t-shirts and slogans are promoting stigma against those struggling with mental illnesses.

If we start to change our tone when talking about mental health in day-to-day conversations, we can send our own message back to the media: mental illness isn’t something to be disrespected and commoditized.

Once the media receives this message, we will see the juxtaposition of humor and mental illness for the better. PSA’s, resources, and organizations concerning mental illness will be able to incorporate humor in respectful and effective ways.

Using humor like this can broaden the scope of their audiences both in number and understanding.

The marriage of humor and mental illness is natural; some of the funniest people in the world are suffering intensely from mental illness. If we can connect humor and mental illness more positively, we can make a huge difference in the world of mental health.

Elizabeth Frankel is a Minnesotan who loves psychology, theatre, and anything related to horses. She seeks to understand why the world is the way it is through critical thinking, and when that fails, she just employs sarcasm.


4 thoughts on “Why humor surrounding mental illness is either the best or the worst thing in existence

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  1. I think there is a balance in everything. I don’t think anyone should be poking fun at others with serious conditions but having ADD / OCD myself I do make jokes about it. I have learned to lighted up and have more of a sense of humor but not at others expense. I have learned to laugh at myself more as a self-observers and not take things too serious. I am a very emotional person! I don’t purposely wish to offend anyone in anyway but the truth is that we are all going to offend people here and there unknowingly and not on purpose. To not is to not be in relationship with people all together and believe me I have try that and its very lonely! That is why we get to apologize! No mental illness is not a joke. And I was deeply offended when someone called me bi-polar. It is used as a put down and that wasn’t cool.

  2. Absolutely wonderful.

    Very insightful. I was horrified to see the “Bulimia t-shirt” and “Anna Rexia” costume. What a terrible message to send to people afflicted with those disorders. Ridiculing something someone struggles with on a daily basis is never acceptable.

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