Joking about mental health – a laugh too far?

Mad. Loony. Mental. Depressed. All words used every day to describe our moods or our anger. All words also associated with serious aspects of mental health. With conditions ranging from debilitating to life enhancing, mental health is a constant zeitgeist. However, various words relating to mental health have crept into everyday language and are used to indirectly discriminate against people who are actually suffering. It’s a fine line, as ever, between raising awareness and bullying.

The obvious example is depression. ‘I’m depressed’ is a phrase used every day for conditions that amount to dissatisfaction with life, or, more simply, not getting what we want. Depression is actually a chronic debilitating condition that changes the lives of those experiencing it. Ironically, a feature of depression is that the sufferer does not realise that they are depressed initially and therefore would not necessarily go around stating that they are depressed; by the time they are diagnosed, their life has often changed forever.

Similarly, the profile of pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is raised by including it as a catch-all for women’s behaviour that does not fit into an expected paradigm. Everyday statements about PMS, which is not usually diagnosed as a mental health problem but is certainly a debilitating mental and physical disorder, are often jokes about the expremities of behaviour, disregarding actual effect. Although this conveys more information about the condition, it is rarely positive in nature, mostly joking about women’s suffering. This is grossly unfair to those who truly suffer from PMS, as this is a terrible condition experienced by many women – and there is no efficient treatment and no cure.

Diagnosis of these both these conditions, and countless more, are met with relief from the sufferers. There is a plethora of information in society for sufferers and their families, although not all of this in positive in content – and some of it is downright cruel.

There are many celebrity memoires where depression and ‘women’s problems’ are held up as a yardstick for our own lives. Research has shown these to be useful for those with mental health issues as they resonate. However, and conversely, many soap opera portrayals of mental health problems are inaccurate and journey further into strengthening the stigma of mental health. Worse still, the daily diagnosis by the tabloid press of people’s problems using mental health terms is not helpful.

This article about Marian Keyes, bestselling author is an example of how potential awareness raising of mental health problems can flounder amid a desire to blame. It struggles to find something to blame depression on, suggesting that because Ms Keyes has fame and a lovely husband she should not be depressed. Going on to talk about body image, the article also suggests that she may have a hormonal or chemical imbalance. Desperate to link women’s depression to lifestyle, the article even tries to blames the menopause.

However, the truth is that depression cannot be generalised over circumstances; another woman in the same social circumstances as Marian could be non-depressed. Although the article raises depression as a valid illness, suffered by someone well known to and someone people can resonate with through their work, the diagnostic desperation of the piece in terms of cause and effect is guesswork. More worrying, after reading this article, a woman asked ‘if she was depressed as she also felt fat’. In this context, casual use of the language of mental health and unqualified cause and effect diagnosis is unhelpful.

The most damaging aspect of making fun of, or being casual about mental health is in an everyday context, where the language of people’s suffering is used in a power dynamic, perhaps of gender or status. Insinuating that someone is ‘mad’ or ‘on their monthlies’ is an almost desperate attempt to get personal in what will usually be a long ranging power struggle, where everything else has failed. These thoughtless introductions of negative constructions into everyday situations are usually made by the empathy-less individuals concerned only with themselves.

It may be laughed off in general, or treated as a throwaway comment, but the recovering chronic depressive or the PMS sufferer may not see the funny side.