Why I hate the term “mental illness” – but should I?

a different term for mental illnessI have mental illness.

UGH. Saying that makes me cringe. It’s such an ugly phrase, “mental illness.” And “mentally ill” is even worse. Those terms conjure up unwanted imagery, none of which applies to me. At all.

I am not crazy. I am not violent, or scary, or a threat to others. I’m not drugged out and loopy on high-octane meds. I simply – and not so simply – have a chronic health condition that happens to be in my brain. I use medication to manage it. Sometimes I feel completely normal. And sometimes I don’t.

Lately I’ve been in the not-feeling-normal category. Which is why it’s been kind of quiet around here on the blog. Yes, work has been really, really busy for me. That’s been a big part of it, for sure. But if I wasn’t feeling this way I’d be itching to write about the challenges of being a working mom, how impossible it is to have it all, the crazy expectations society places on moms. Something like that.

I get ideas. But then I have no motivation to sit down and write. Nor do I want to write about how I’m feeling.

It’s familiar territory. Sometimes when I’m dealing with a down phase, I need to get out all those feelings and concerns here. But sometimes I just don’t feel like writing about it.

The last time I was not feeling mentally healthy, I was feeling sad and unmotivated. I dreaded starting each day. This time it’s anxiety that is kicking my butt, which is weird for me. I don’t normally deal with obvious anxiety symptoms, but last week I had a panic attack for the first time in many years. And since that night I can’t get rid of the tight feeling in my chest.

I’m irritable, impatient, and jittery. I constantly feel like I’ve had too much coffee. I always have this dreadful feeling that I’m forgetting something really important. I’m picking apart the skin around my fingernails. And I get lost in unimportant things (like wasting time on Facebook or checking my lists over and over), instead of being productive (like dealing with household chores or focusing on work).

Years ago, I would have just tried to grit my teeth and get through this phase. I’d convince myself it would pass, or that by the time I actually got in to see a therapist or psych doc, I’d feel better and it would be a waste of time. It would take a complete breakdown to spur me to get help.

Not anymore. This time when I recognized that I was in a downward spiral, I set up appointments with my occasional therapist and my doc. I asked the therapist for strategies to manage my anxiety and stress. I told the doc what was going on and he adjusted my medication and is monitoring me. I’m writing down which meds I’ve tried, what side effects I have, dosages, and other relevant info.

I’m also taking steps to reduce the stress in my life. I’m gardening more and online less. And I’m actually not going to work this summer. Hubs and I calculated that due to my successful winter/spring of work I can take a break. Of course, the stress of that success has driven me to needing the time off. But whatever. It is what it is.

This dogged dedication to doing what needs to be done to feel better is a big part of effectively managing my chronic illness. It’s not easy. It would be far easier to hide under the covers of my bed and wish it all away. Or grit my teeth and soldier on, making everyone around me miserable while I suffered. But those strategies were obviously not working. What’s that old definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. Yeah. That. I am done with acting insane.

Honestly, I’m not really feeling better yet. But I have faith that I will. I always do, eventually. That’s the thing with my “mental illness.” Like many chronic health conditions, I go into remission and have relapses. Back and forth. Over and over. Living with a chronic condition can be exhausting. But I don’t have a choice. So I do it.

“Mental illness.” Yes, I have it. But I am not crazy. My illness doesn’t define me. It’s one aspect of who I am. And that’s all.

What phrase would you prefer to use if we could banish the term “mental illness?”

I'm Blogging for Mental Health.

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32 Replies to “Why I hate the term “mental illness” – but should I?”

  1. I don't like the term "mental illness" either, but I use it because it's what gets people's attention. I may have mental illness, but it doesn't define me AT ALL. It's just one part of my life that I have to manage and appreciate (yes, I said appreciate) for all the good it's brought my way. Sharing my story has been so incredibly healing for me, and for others who have told me it has impacted them.

    Thank you for putting this out there, JD. And good for you for taking action when you recognized your symptoms returning. You're gonna overcome this. You're a brave, strong person. Sending hugs and appreciation.

  2. I’m not sure it matters if we change the name. I hate saying “I’m depressed.” “I’m a recovering addict.” “I’m in love with an alcoholic.” But by the same token, saying it is acknowledging it and forcing it to not own me. I own it and I’m in recovery. If it’s another word, it too will take on the pain of these conditions and feelings.

    Thank you for speaking up! It will get better.

    1. I have taken to saying “I have depression” as I am not my illness. People don’t say “I am cancer,” or “I am diabetes.” It helps me take ownership mentally (that feels like a pun, but it’s not intended to be!), too, to say that I have depression, versus it having me. It might be “just semantics,” but it works for me.

  3. Which is scarier to say or hear? Chemical imbalance? Mental illness? Depression? Anxiety? I really don’t know. I do agree that it took time to accept them as part of who I am. I’m tired of whispering about it around my neck of the woods.
    Sending you big virtual {hugs} or whatever calms you. Can’t wait to meet you at #blogu. Truly.

  4. When I say that I am the mom of 2 children with mental illness, I know that conjures up mental images of school shooters. I loathe the reality, but coming to terms with the terrible M I words means I have power over it, vs it having power over me/us. Thanks for your contribution to the education of the masses that mental illness is just a "brain thing". If you need insulin because your body doesn't process sugar, you aren't embarrassed. If your brain struggles to deal with anxiety, somehow you are less. I'm ready to debunk the myths. How bout you? 🙂

  5. Glad I get these posts in my inbox…this pretty much describes where I’m at. I usually don’t bring it up to people…someone today asked if I’m working because I take my 3 year old to preschool every day til 3pm and my other kids in 1st grade and gets out at 3 ….I told her no I’m not working and I didn’t tell her anything else….that just getting up and getting them ready and then driving to school just about depletes the small bit of life force I have left. I sit most of the day watching tv and eating or trying to destress so I can get enough energy to drive and pick them up and not kill anyone on the way. I take long baths, exercise , meditate , hypnosis, paint, or just sleep. I really don’t know. If I’m mentally ill or have mental illness, I just want peace, love in my life and I want my kids to be happy and feel loved by me cuz right now I don’t know if that’s the truth and if they believe they are good and loved. 🙁

  6. Hi
    Thank you for your blog. You know, just knowing that someone else is in the same boat somehow makes it easier to stay afloat. Sometimes we just have to put first things first and get on with things. Simple but not easy. To accept myself and all of life and to make the most of it. There are good days. They pass. Then there are ‘bad’ days. They pass too and it is only through them that we gain strength and insight. We have to take action. We are strong women, we have problems and we are not just surviving, we choose to thrive. We have to do whatever it takes to make the most of the life we have been blessed with, whether that’s gardening, kickboxing, admitting that’ no, I don’t want to be with my kids every minute of every day’. Just because we brought them into the world does not mean we then forego life ourselves. How else can we teach our daughters to be the strong women we strive to be? To take care of themselves, to love and cherish themselves if we don’t teach them by example?
    I wish you well, not luck. You have everything you need right now to get through this and

  7. I too hate the term "mental illness." It always makes me think of people howling at the moon and not the real issues of living with a disorder of the brain. Thank you for being such a wonderful voice on such an important topic!! xo

  8. How about we call it “brain aches”? I mean, we have headaches that people pop a tylenol for and don’t think twice. My brain aches sometimes, and I take my medicine to keep the aches away, or at least manageable. I’ve battled depression and anxiety for a several years now, and I have never heard it explained so well – the way I get lows that aren’t all out bottomed out, but just battle through it and come out of the valley. It does help to know I’m not alone, it gives me confidence and hope that this too shall pass. Thank you so much for sharing, I’m glad you got into my inbox! 🙂

  9. I’ve taken to telling others I “am in treatment for a disorder” and leaving it at that. If I’m in a situation where my anxiety might flare up, I add that if I look like I’m having a seizure or pass out to not call for EMS. While think it’s important (and necessary) to destigmatize our conditions, sometimes I just don’t want to get into it. Over and over and over and over… and then all the same advice with who did what with herbs or acupuncture or sheer will power (because the later works so well).

  10. I like to think that every time that someone like you is brave enough to speak up, we’re getting closer to acceptance and understanding. Thank you from a fellow sufferering mom!

  11. I have been going with "mood disorder" and lately my symptoms have been of the "cognitive problem" ilk.

  12. Well put. And this too shall pass. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it will. I’ve been there too, but I don’t like to talk about it. But I do have a book I’m writing about it. For me it was too hard to blog about it.

    I like what you said – “I have a chronic health condition – it just happens to be in my brain.” Totally true.

  13. We forget sometimes that what we define as "mental illness" is really a more extreme/persistent expression of the so-called "normal" range of emotions. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where to get treatment, something has to be TERRIBLY WRONG and we think/are told we have to "battle" something rather than bring in compassion and whatever is helpful to us to support us into coming back into homeostasis (or sometimes just functionality, depending on the day). Today, my daughter described me as "delightfully weird," and while that has little to do with the anxiety/depression that comes up for me, I appreciated the compliment.

  14. I have struggled with depression off and on most of my adult life. Of course, most of my issues have been induced by circumstances but I still made sure that I treated it. I don’t see anything wrong with having a mental illness, we each have our own set of problems. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Something else I say, depending on the situation, is, “anxiety/depression runs in my family.” For some weird reason, stating it like that seems to make the listener more empathic. I’m very open about my “mental illness.” If I can help or inform someone, I feel like I’ve made a contribution to society.

  16. I am totally in the same boat as all of you and I do appreciate your honesty in your blog. What I think is a misnomer here is that those of us who have depression and anxiety and consequently suffer from the symptoms believe we need some form of validation from society that we are acceptable even so. I used to think it was just me and others who admitted to having depression and anxiety that were suffering but in fact everyone suffers from time to time. Comparison is one of the worst culprits for feeding our depression because it convinces us that we’re never enough and that what we’re doing isn’t enough. As far as having it all? It’s very hard to put blinders on to what society mandates as having it all. I have struggled with the balance between work, motherhood, and home, but my worst struggle is within myself feeling like I’m enough. When I finally get to the place where all I hear is my own voice and my own heart about what is truly important to me is when I am in the best place for making the right choices for my life. We all have the ability within us to direct our own lives on our own terms, that is what brings me hope and joy everyday instead of dread of living up to another’s perception of ideal.

  17. We are all different. Why do we have to define ourselves by deficits? We should brag about the things we do well.

    1. We are all “delightfully weird” in our own unique way. Can you imagine how boring life would be if we were all really “normal” (whatever the hell that is). Ever person has some type of illness, whether it be diabetes, dental caries, or toenail fungus. Let’s celebrate what is uniquely beautiful about ourselves and refuse to allow our doctors, our society, our family, or ourselves to reduce us to a mere collection of our difficulties. Sure, we may have some form of mental illness, but let’s stomp out the stigma surrounding it by being open about our illnessess and never letting anyone, including ourselves, forget that that illness is only one small part of a magnificent, beautiful and talented creature.

  18. I kind of think that using it for myself, a functioning, full-time working mom who most people probably think of as a normal woman, helps to dispel the stereotype. I hope so anyway. I also know that I dislike the reality of my mental illness much more than I dislike the word. I think the reality can suck and people's attitudes about it can suck and the word to describe it is just a reflection of that.

  19. An amazing post that will no doubt inspire everyone who reads it…I wish we could all get past the labeling and the stigma that comes with the term “mental illness”, because as you so perfectly stated it is just one aspect of someone, not who they are. I hope that the struggle with anxiety is lessening for you.-Ashley

  20. Mental illness disorder is a type of disease and condition that shows the way person think and behave and react to the surroundings and laughter is the best solution for mental illness.

  21. Hug. Love. and Good work! Understanding what it is makes the navigating medium so much easier. I have a bucketload of Chronic stuff: fibromyalgia, PMDD, PTSD. If any one of those little guys gets upset, then the anxiety/depression cycle bike starts rolling.

    I've had ideas, but when I sit down to write the motivation and thoughts evaporate. Because of it I spend more time in the real world doing concrete things. You tying it to a cycle makes so much sense. I'll be thinking about that next time I sit down to write.

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