The Hamilton Spectator

Be careful how we define others


I’ve been known to watch reality TV — not often, but when I need to disconnect from everything and just watch something frivolous, that’s where I go.

I am not proud of this, but it is what it is.

My most recent guilty pleasure was “Love Is Blind.” It’s the usual: contrived drama, lots of alcohol, people who need to talk to a profession­al more than they need to find love and folks not going on the show for the “right reasons.”

I’m not quite sure what those reasons are, but you should make sure they are right.

Those trivial things don’t bother me — I find it comforting that most reality shows have the same format. What does bother me is how easy it is for the people on the show to toss around terms like “narcissist” and other mental-health conditions to describe people they have issues with.

And we, all the medical school graduates of the University of Google, do the same. Our armchair diagnoses are a problem. They lead to the continued stigma or misunderst­anding of mental health and the challenges of people who have real mental illness. The words we use, and how we use them, are important.

A few years ago, I was posting on social media about our ridiculous Toronto spring weather. I said, ignorantly, that “the weather was bipolar.” Funny, not funny.

It was a flippant comment. I hadn’t really thought about my words or how they might hurt or offend someone. My intent was just to crack an innocent joke about the weather, but my intent didn’t matter — the impact of my words did.

Luckily, two friends told me about myself. They rightfully said I was making fun of disorders or illnesses that people struggle with daily. I needed to use my platform and my voice to do better. I was embarrasse­d, I was just making a joke, but you know what? They were right.

My making fun or light of the seriousnes­s of mental illness wasn’t funny. I needed to take full responsibi­lity for my words and apologize for the impact those words had on whoever read them. In real life, just like on reality TV, we don’t like to take responsibi­lity for our actions and the effect they have on others. But we have to because we are responsibl­e for how we treat each other.

So, I apologized publicly for my words and promised to do better. I’m not perfect, but I am much more thoughtful about the words I write and speak.

These days, everyone is diagnosing others with all kinds of mental illnesses when we don’t like or understand their behaviour. Narcissist­s abound and OCD is about having an intensely clean kitchen. Everyone has PTSD. Your work colleague is a paranoid schizophre­nic.

Maybe they have a mental illness or disorder, or maybe they are acting like human beings.

People are complex and behave in a number of ways we don’t understand — that doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill. It may just mean they are bad-minded, odd, selfish or simply human.

Words matter — and so does the context.

How we describe others and the world around us can have consequenc­es. There is already enough stigma about mental health — why compound that by cracking jokes or being flippant about serious conditions?

Some folks would say I’m trying to be politicall­y correct by considerin­g the impact of my words. They’d say people need to stop being snowflakes, but it’s not about toughening up. Empathy is a thing, and we should be empathetic to anyone living with mental illnesses or disorders.

A joke isn’t funny if you’re punching down.

The impact is what matters. It’s easy to just throw words around, but we don’t realize how much damage we do. Words have power — use them wisely.

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