June 11, 2021

By Betsey O'Brien

three people speaking

Have you noticed that stigma seems to burn inside certain words and expressions? It shows up when someone chooses the word “insane” to dismiss an individual they disagree with or a behavior they don’t understand. We hear it when someone uses a serious diagnosis to label something that isn’t very serious at all. Perhaps you’ve heard someone describe themselves as “OCD” about housekeeping — when really, they just love a clean home. The misuse of the term, while not an intentional slight, doesn’t show much understanding of what it’s actually like to live with this condition.

I’ve noticed that hints of stigma can lurk in the smallest corners of our conversations. Recently, I was surprised to hear one particular word popping up in chats with friends who are caring for people with mental health conditions. My friends, tired, exasperated or distrustful of their loved ones, would say something like:

“She just needs to take her meds!”
“He’s just feeling off-balance right now.”
“If they would just get into counseling, I think they’d be fine.”

I started wondering what “just” really meant in the context of a conversation about someone’s mental health.


What Does This Word Reveal About Our Thinking?

Wanting to know more, I tuned into writing and conversations outside of my inner circle. Often, I’d notice that “just” hovered right in front of a judgment someone was making about an individual who was struggling. I noticed that the speaker was often:

  1. Prescribing. “If she could just get out of bed in the morning and take a shower, her day would go better.”
  2. Dismissing. “He’s just not trying hard enough.”
  3. Minimizing. “It’s just a mood swing.”

I’m not suggesting we call the Word Police every time we hear something like this. Among caregivers especially, there must be space for the anger and frustration that often comes with the role. We need to offer ourselves at least as much compassion as we extend to our loved ones.

Still, I think we should pay close attention to the ways in which we use word “just.” It’s worth checking to see if our casual comments are giving credence to the notion that:

  • Solutions to mental health problems are straightforward and obvious.
  • We know better than people who actually live with mental health conditions.
  • One simple step or approach will solve everything.
  • The person we’re talking about is actually making a choice — or deliberately making things harder than they have to be.

I believe that compassion and mindfulness are the best ways to ease any lingering bits of stigma (and self-stigma) out of our hearts and our conversations. It takes practice and patience. Noticing the words we choose — and the thoughts that might hide behind our choices — can help us become better champions for ourselves and others.

When we forget (which we will inevitably do), we can simply say: “Oh gosh, I just said something I’m not sure I actually believe. Let me put that a different way.”


Betsey O’Brien is an independent writer focused on mental health and its impact on individuals, families and communities. She lives in Oak Park, Ill., and is a past contributor to NAMI Advocate.

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