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Think before you speak

One day last year when I was walking out of the school bathroom, I didn’t touch the door handle. Instead, I opened the door with my elbow. A lot of people had been coming to school sick, and I didn’t want to get sick too. One of my friends commented, “Wow, do you have OCD? What are you doing?” I was surprised that my friend said something because I thought I was being smart. I felt she was implying that there was something wrong with me for being cautious. Trying to avoid getting sick and having OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) are not related. I told my friend, “Hey, that’s really not funny, and I find it kind of offensive when you say things like that.” She just said, “OK, OK,” and dropped the topic. 

For a while, she stopped using the term “OCD” around me, but I still hear her use it to describe people who are upset that things aren’t in order or who are being very clean. I still hear other kids using the word “OCD” too. I also used to use mental illness words in a derogatory way, but my mom told me it was wrong. She used to work in a psychiatric hospital and told me not to use mental illness terms to label others. 

My mom said that some people have schizophrenia, which means that they have trouble telling what is real from what is unreal. A person with schizophrenia may see things that aren’t there. She said other people may have bipolar disorder, which is a condition that causes a person to experience shifts in mood and behavior—from mania or excessive activity to depression. She said, “Using these terms to talk negatively about people who have the diagnosis, or to poke fun at those who don’t have these illnesses, is not OK.” 

I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. Everyone did it! My mom was overreacting, I told myself. But just to make my mom happy, I tried listening to her. 

It was difficult. In middle school one of my P.E. teachers made us run two miles and do a bunch of push-ups, sit-ups and stretches and we were really tired. I didn’t know why he was being so mean because he was usually a nice guy. I told my mom about my teacher when I got home from school and I said that he had been acting really bipolar. My mom said, “Don’t say that.” I said “OK” but it wasn’t sincere since I was still mad at him. 

When people say things like “she’s so anorexic,” “he’s acting psychotic” or “stop acting bipolar,” they imply that it’s OK to treat people with these diagnoses badly. 

My classmates say, “Wow, she’s so thin! She’s, like, anorexic.” If I know them I’ll say, “Well you don’t know that. Maybe they have a really fast metabolism.” In the moment they’ll say OK but they’ll say it again later. Anorexia is a legitimate medical condition that should be taken seriously. 

Even teachers use these terms. In sixth grade, we were having a conversation about a character in a book. One of the characters washed his hands a lot, and one of the kids in my class said, “Wow, that’s weird. Did he have OCD?” My teacher laughed and said, “Maybe. Yeah, it is weird!” I was surprised that my teacher didn’t tell him that it’s not OK to say that OCD is weird. Teachers are supposed to be role models.

I wanted to talk to someone who has a mental illness to see how they feel when they hear people use these terms. I called L.A. Youth writer Henry Studebaker, 16, who has been diagnosed with OCD.

He said that before he was diagnosed, he would laugh when he heard people say things like “that’s so OCD.” Once he was diagnosed, the jokes weren’t that funny anymore and hearing them made him embarrassed. He didn’t want to tell people that he had OCD because he didn’t want to be picked on.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked and a bit frightened and worried that I’d be different, that it was going to change me,” he said. 

‘It’s not a joke’

He said that he used to wash his hands all the time but now he’s taking medication and he’s better. He doesn’t let the slurs bother him anymore but he thinks people shouldn’t say them. “It could make someone feel depressed and that they’re different and looked down upon. It’s not something that they can control. It’s not a joke.”

Talking to Henry made me realize that one of your friends could have a mental illness and they’ve never told you because you’ve been using these terms. 

I still sometimes slip up. If a teacher is giving us a whole bunch of homework sometimes I’ll say that he or she is crazy. People use this term so often that it’s hard to not use it. I don’t think that “crazy” is as offensive as the other slurs, but it’s still not good to say. 

When I was younger, my sister, my dad and I used to go downtown to visit museums. When we would walk from our car to the museum I’d see some people who were talking to themselves or screaming. It scared me. I thought they were going to come up to me and start yelling at me, so I’d walk on the other side of my dad. My dad would say, “It’s OK, don’t worry” but I’d still be scared. I thought that people with a mental illness were strange. 

I’m much better now when I see people screaming on the street. I don’t freak out and walk on the other side of the person I’m with. I’ve learned that we’re both people and they deserve respect. We all have feelings, and no matter what kind of illness you have, when someone puts your condition down, it hurts. 

This special package is funded by the Mental Health Services Act, Prop. 63 

Opening my mind. Melissa learned not to judge people who have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Mental health Q&A.