Why everyone with a brain should read this

The topic of mental health is incredibly polarizing. You simply have to say, “I have a mental condition” for either one of two things to happen. The person you’re talking to either gently (but obviously) moves away from you or you receive an overly (and somewhat scary) reaction of “Oh my goodness, ME TOO”. In today’s world where everything and anything is available online, it can become overwhelming to learn more about mental health, especially if you or your loved one are suffering from a mental illness. 

Yet the truth is, mental illness is as debilitating and common as any physical injury. When we break our ankle, for example, most people would tell us to go see a doctor while giving us friendly advice on managing and preventing further damage. 

So, it’s strange to think that when we speak to the same people about a mental illness, we are told something along the lines of, “Well, you should have known better” coupled with “According to studies A, B, C, and D, X amount of people also have the same mental condition as you.”

While this opinion piece will include some data, the focus will not be on fear mongering. More than likely, you already know that mental illness is challenging, but don’t know how to properly talk about it. 

The concept of mental health and the language we use to describe it

One of the most telling ways society views mental health is in the language we use to describe it. This is most evidently seen in many Asian languages. In the Philippines, for example, the term used for mental illness is that one is “baliw” (crazy) or that a person has “nasirahan ng ulo” (literally, your head is broken). In the Philippine context, having a mental illness is tantamount to you admitting that you are somehow defective as a human being.

This explains why a recent Harvard University1 study found that one of the main reasons many Filipinos don’t seek help for a mental illness is social stigma. Removing the practical aspects of expensive healthcare in the country (a topic for a different day), many Filipinos will never admit to having a “broken head” or being somehow “crazy”. (It is interesting to note that the etymology of the term “baliw” can be found in the Cebuano Bisayan dialect (a region of the Philippines) that refers to divine punishment for those who engage in incestuous acts2). Language also plays a role in how the Japanese and Chinese people view mental illness as well, though in slightly different ways. Among the Japanese, there is a concept called “yuutsu3” which has no direct English translation. The concept puts together the terms “yuu”, which describes something as sad or difficult, and “utsu”, which in this context means something blocked or stale. When the character for utsu is added with the term for illness, we get the term used “utsobyou” which literally means “blocked sickness”. This reflects a somewhat poetic, though slightly disturbing, view of how the Japanese view their mental health. Yuutsu describes emotions as blocked as sunlight on a cloudy day—but what do people do when there is no hope for clear skies? Do we just accept our “fate” of perpetual yuutsu?

This is slightly different from how the Chinese talk about mental health. There is no popular term for any form of mental illness in the country, only the concept of “miànzi4”. Miànzi refers to “face” and the actions people do to retain and preserve honor in their families and, most importantly, prevent embarrassment. It is a complex cultural concept, but one that heavily influences any discussion of mental health. Having any form of illness (especially one that we cannot physically see, touch, or feel) is incredibly shameful for many Chinese families. So, whereas the Japanese may view mental illness as inevitable and the Filipinos believe themselves to be punished or subnormal, the Chinese simply believe in never talking about it. 

While I can’t discuss all countries in Asia, the understanding of mental health within this context 5becomes fascinating when you also look at the terms used by its people. 

The unintended effects of social media

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have more and more teenagers and young adults who publish online content about the “cool” factor of having a mental illness. It is difficult to determine if these online creators do have a mental illness; and if they do, why they feel the need to openly broadcast it. While there definitely are creators who come from a sincere place of educating the public about different mental conditions, there are also those who use their diagnosis (if at all) as a “W” (the slang for “win”).

An obvious example would be the recent TikTok controversy of a creator who faked having Tourette’s syndrome for clout. In their videos, they were seen to have uncontrollable tics that occurred every few seconds. However, everything came to a head when older videos of the said creator began resurfacing, where they would eloquently speak for hours at a time without ticking. As more evidence turned up of them not having Tourette’s, the creator eventually left TikTok for a while but inevitably came back (sans Tourette’s) to talk about their online yarn business instead.

While Tourette’s is more of a neurological disorder rather than a mental health condition, it is still an illness that has become trendy to have for today’s youth. Researchers have found that having a “cool” illness on social media has led to an astounding number of people self-diagnosing themselves6, and possibly misunderstanding the nuances of their self-proclaimed diagnosis7.

Another popular example of this would be the difference between bipolar disorder and multiple personality disorder. While both conditions are serious disorders, they are not the same and require different treatments. However, to the average person who watches TikTok with no background information on any mental illness, simply feeling one emotion in one moment and having another emotion in the next means that you are mentally ill.

As someone who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder II herself, it is incredibly frustrating for people to define my illness as shallow as that. Instead of merely describing mental disorders as the fluctuation of moods, it would be more educational and informative if people explained how each illness is manifested.

For instance, some people say that being bipolar also makes them incredibly creative and productive, at least in spurts. This isn’t to water down the physically painful aspects of mental illness but to highlight that there are those who can thrive with their double-edged sword, being equally cursed and blessed with their condition. After all, the world would be a much poorer place if no one was “blessed” in some regard: Greta Thunberg with her Aspergers or Van Gogh with his bipolar disorder, just to name a few.

In this way, we teach people that even if these conditions are severe, there is always a silver lining to everything. 

Being diagnosed with a mental Illness is not simple or easy

It is important to note that being diagnosed with a mental illness is not as easy as it appears. The DSM-V (considered the “Bible” of psychiatry) lists specific criteria that must be met to gain a diagnosis. This is why many people who are sick often find it frustrating to get the medicine they need, simply because they do not “fit” the set criteria.

Misdiagnosis, however, is not the only unintended effect of this phenomenon. With the rise of social media and consequently social justice, there has been an extreme move to destigmatize mental illness to the point where it now has become a legitimate excuse for any apparently negative behavior. There have been instances where content creators on social media sites, such as YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, or Reddit, are able to get away with socially inappropriate behavior simply because they are “unwell8”. 

It must be clarified that mental illness can cause a person to do unintended things, but there has to be a limit to how much mental health can excuse anything. Similar to the previous point, mental illness is a condition that can be treated and managed, similar to a physical injury. The goal of any mental health initiative is to remove the stigma so that people seek help, but not to use it as a crutch for any challenge related to emotional intelligence. 

It would be the same as bullying someone and then saying that the reason you did so was because your ankle hurt or that you sprained your wrist. If you are unwell, either physically or mentally, it is still not a reason to hurt anybody else.

Mind your mind

Suffering from a mental illness is not a sign of weakness. It is a symptom of a larger problem that needs to be addressed. Perhaps the reason why a lot of us still don’t know how to talk about mental health is that treatment varies for each person. What would work for one person may not be as effective for another. 

But thankfully, there are things that we can do today to help. The first is to listen—both to yourself and to others. What language do you use when talking about mental health? How do you respond when someone else tells you that they don’t feel well? Simply changing our language about mental health shifts the way we respond to it. While we definitely don’t want to be labeled as someone with a “broken head”, we also don’t want to encourage more people to become mentally ill just for online clout. 

We need to start having open and de-sensationalized conversations about mental health so that we can start enjoying this life that we love so much. 

It’s up to each of us to find that balance where our “miànzi” is based on how well we treat ourselves and others and not our own fears of shame. Remember that mental illness is NOT a fixed state of being. You are NOT doomed to be ill in yuutsu forever. 

Our world needs to stop treating mental health as a series of studies and statistics that remove the emotional aspect of what we feel. Yes, millions of people may have the same disease as you do, but what are we willing to do today to resolve it? 

Let’s change the way we talk (and promote) mental health.

– Raine Grey, July 2023

1 https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2023/04/18/2259819/high-cost-stigma-top-reasons-not-receiving-mental-health-care-philippines-harvard-study

2  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40074/40074-h/40074-h.htm

3 https://catapult.co/stories/column-mistranslate-yuutsu-when-mental-health-is-mistranslated#:~:text=%E6%86%82%E9%AC%B1%20(yuutsu)%20is%20a%20word,metaphorical%20definition%2C%20even%20in%20Japanese

4  https://www.commisceo-global.com/blog/mianzi-the-concept-of-face-in-chinese-culture

5 https://www.cigna.com.sg/health-content-hub/thought-leadership/mental-health-stigma-in-Asia

6 https://www.wired.co.uk/article/tiktok-tourettes

7 https://www.campaignasia.com/article/nearly-84-of-mental-health-videos-on-tiktok-are-misleading-study/482584

8 https://edition.cnn.com/2023/01/11/tech/tiktok-teen-mental-health

Raine Grey is an experienced content writer from the Philippines. A profound lover of books, she believes that life is meant to be enjoyed without encroaching on the rights and liberties of others. Raine is passionate about mental health initiatives, having been diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder herself. She is the mother of her adopted rescue cat, Cuapao.

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