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Why I refuse to refer to myself as 'mentally ill'

Alexis Dent is a writer, cupcake aficionado, and Oxford comma enthusiast from Western New York. When she is not composing an essay, she is probably playing with her small dog, Giant.

Call me neurodivergent, call me a human living with OCD, but don’t you dare call me 'mentally ill'

I have generalized anxiety disorder. And obsessive-compulsive disorder. And post-traumatic stress disorder. And yes, I realize it sounds like the medical diagnosis for a soldier who has returned from the front lines of a war-torn battleground, but that couldn’t be further from my experiences as a young woman. I had a privileged childhood, went to an awesome high school and college from which I received degrees with honors, and I continued on to a career in my chosen field.

For many people, it seems inconceivable that someone who looks and lives like I do could be plagued by neuropsychiatric disorders. Indeed, it took a while for me to accept it myself. I still cringe or hesitate to admit the trifecta of disorders for which my neuropsychiatrist treats me, but I have to embrace that this is the hand of cards that I have been dealt. But no matter how much I accept that, yes, I live with GAD, OCD and PTSD, I will not call myself mentally ill.

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To clarify, when I refer to my health, I prefer to use the terms neurological disorders or neuropsychiatric disorders. There is rapidly increasingly support of the medical theory that psychiatric disorders and neurological disorders are actually under the same umbrella of illnesses resulting from abnormalities in the brain.

When we hear the words “mentally ill,” we think the worst. We think people in straitjackets and padded rooms who have deranged thoughts and should be kept away from sharp objects. We think about criminals and sickos who commit the vilest crimes and strip innocent people of their rights to live. We think of insane asylums from horror movies. We think of misery and solitude and hopelessness.

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But the one thing no one seems to associate with the phrase “mentally ill”? Happiness. Because we have created an environment where people think neurological disorders and sanity, recovery and happiness cannot exist. It’s sad, really.

To be mentally ill means to fall into the stigmatization that has ruled our society for far too long. It is the reason we still say “committed suicide” instead of the more reasonable, medically accepted term — “died by suicide.”

It’s the reason that we slap a generic label on a whole group of people and lump the most innocent of sufferers in with the most deranged of sociopaths (who may not even be mentally ill, just extremist assholes that the media labels as “crazy”).

It is not that I think I am better than the term “mentally ill.” More than anything, my issue is that it is an inaccurate label that makes little sense. When someone has heart disease, they say, “I have heart disease.” If I am talking about my neighbor Jane, who has diabetes, I don’t say, “Jane is physically ill.” Nope; it is far more customary to simply say, “Jane has diabetes.”

Not only does the term “mentally ill” further isolate suffers of neuropsychiatric disorders, but it also continues the idea that people with neuropsychiatric disorders are their disorders and nothing more. Instead of simply living with health issues that might make life more complex every now and again, we say that they are what they live with, and that’s just wrong. There are so many incredible people who live with neuropsychiatric disorders (including some of the brightest and most talented artists, politicians and change-makers throughout history). Reducing them to being “mentally ill” strips them of credibility and identity; it’s just plain wrong.

Our inability to acknowledge neuropsychiatric disorders as legitimate physiological illnesses is the main reason why these stigmas persist. The brain is not independent of the body. Just as is your heart or your kidney or your lung, the brain is a vital organ that can have abnormalities that cause you physical distress. Therein lies the nature of neuropsychiatric disorders, and the medical community is increasingly more vocal about the genetic and inherently biological catalysts that cause these illnesses.

I loathe that the word “mental” is synonymous with the belief that things are made up and self-fabricated — something that’s all in your head. In fact, the word’s negative connotation in part dates back to early 20th century asylums and neuropsychiatric sufferers being treated as criminals.

More: I'm absolutely terrified to tell my kids about my mental illness

Terminology is everything, and I will not subscribe to the idea that my illness is “mental” — and therefore not biological or legitimate. Sure, there are people who use the term “mental illness” and realize that they are referring to disorders of the brain, but there are others who misuse the term (whether purposefully or not) and further reinforce the idea that the “mental” in mental illness is a figment of a twisted imagination.

If neuropsychiatric disorders were truly ‘“mental” — as in made up and all in your head — they would not respond so well to medications. I frequently explain this to people who think my anxiety could be managed by therapy alone, for example. But try as I might have (and very well did for a long time), therapy wasn’t enough. My brain lacks the proper amount of serotonin, and it wasn’t until I was on a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor to regulate those hormones that my health started to actually improve.

That is not to say therapy isn’t useful, of course. But what I am getting at is that trying to fix a lack of serotonin by talking about it is like trying to regulate a diabetic’s insulin by looking at candy bars. It is time to get real about what neurologists have been studying and saying for ages.

My illnesses are not a figment of my imagination. They are not something I caused or wished upon myself. And therefore, they are definitely not mental. My brain is an organ, and it deserves to be treated as such. Now more than ever, vigorous research and social change have lead to the adoption of more inclusive terms for people like myself.

Call me neurodivergent, call me neuro-atypical, call me a human living with OCD or even call me “that chick with anxiety who loves burritos.” But don’t you dare call me mentally ill. My illness is not mental, and neither am I.

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