- The negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health may have long-term effects.
- While it is good to be open about mental health, it is equally important to seek a professional diagnosis and treatment.
- A few mental illnesses tend to dominate conversations about mental health, but many more are lesser known and often misunderstood.
- Certain words and phrases are improper, and even derogatory, when speaking with or about a person living with a mental illness.
- Anxiety disorders affect 40 million U.S. adults each year.
- Some 16.1 million Americans age 18 and up experience Major Depressive Disorder annually.
- Eight million adults live with PTSD in a given year.
As we make our way through the second year of a deadly pandemic, we see that its effects have triggered or worsened these illnesses in many people.
During Mental Health Awareness Month, we owe it to those living with a mental illness, and those who treat and study them, to learn more about the many other lesser-known mental illnesses our fellow citizens experience. There are new conditions and symptoms emerging as well, and new triggers to existing ones. We must also consider how we unwittingly use terminology that adds pain to those already working hard to overcome the societal stigma of living with a mental illness.
Words Can Hurt, and Worsen Unnecessary Shame
In her article, “Mental illnesses: Terms to use. Terms to avoid,” Emily Bulthuis identifies certain words and phrases that are improper, and even derogatory, to use when we speak with or about a person living with a mental illness. Her recommendations may seem like small differences to people not experiencing a mental illness. But to those who do, the right words can reflect understanding and consideration. These are some of her suggestions for better terms to use:
- “Mental illnesses” or “a mental illness,” rather than “mental illness” as a catch-all.
- “Living with a mental illness,” instead of “afflicted with,” “suffering from” or “a victim of” mental illness.
- “A person with or living with a mental illness,” not a “mentally ill person” or a “person who is mentally ill.”
- “Usual” or “typical” behavior, in place of “normal behavior.”
- “Substance use disorder,” in lieu of “substance abuse.”
- “Died by suicide” or “lost by suicide,” as an alternative to “committed suicide.”
Bulthuis sums it up this way: “The more we work toward being thoughtful and showing respect, the closer we get to ending the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses.”
Some Mental Illnesses Have Disappeared, Many Remain Under the Radar
Today, we rarely hear about mental illnesses such as hysteria, soldier’s heart, the vapors, glass delusion, and drapetomania. Thanks to modern medicine, these illnesses were found to be trends of their times, or symptomatic of now-established mental (somatization disorder, PTSD) or physical (chronic fatigue syndrome, low thyroid function) illnesses, or rooted in societal ills such as racism or sexism. 
However, there are numerous mental illnesses that are little publicized and often misunderstood. Just as there are rare physical diseases, there are also mental diseases that may impact only a small percentage of the population. But to each person living with that condition, the effects and their implications for living a full life are very real.
In recognition of the people who live with and treat these less visible mental illnesses, let us take some time this month to raise our own awareness of them:
- Borderline personality disorder
- Complex PTSD (C-PTSD)
- Dissociative identity disorder (DID)
- Eating Disorders, and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)
- Avoidant personality disorder
- Selective mutism
- Harm obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRB)
- Schizoaffective disorders
- Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)
- Adjustment Disorder
- Postpartum disorders
Celebrities, athletes, and others in popular culture are playing a role in bringing some of these lesser-known mental illnesses to the forefront, particularly eating and postpartum disorders. But in many cases, people experiencing a rare mental illness do not get the visibility and support they need and deserve.
Gain Perspective on Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Trends
Although COVID-19 has led to increased conversation about mental illness, it has had an undeniably negative effect on mental health. The subject matter experts in our Behavioral Health Advancement Resource Center are addressing the uptick of mental illness diagnosis, substance use, and suicide by prioritizing prevention and developing new solutions for immediate and long-term issues. Unfortunately, “long-term” is the most concerning for mental health professionals. The BBC quotes psychiatry professor and author Steven Taylor, who says that “for an unfortunate minority of people, perhaps 10 to 15%, life will not return to normal” because of the way the pandemic has affected their mental health. The British Medical Journal also sees extended mental health repercussions: “…the mental health impact of the pandemic is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact.”
What about new mental health-related terms? Do you know someone who says they are “languishing?” In a 2002 paper, Emory University professor and socialist Corey L.M. Keyes described a person’s mental health continuum, calling “flourishing” the presence of mental health, and “languishing” the absence of mental health. Now the term “languishing” is being used to describe the predominant mood or emotion that people are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. While it is good for people to be open about mental health, it is equally important to seek a professional diagnosis and treatment if anyone is concerned about mental wellness. Avoid the urge to latch onto a description, of yourself or someone else, just because it is in vogue.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual can realize his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Not only every May, but all the time, we must continue to promote and enable that state of well-being for all Americans. There are more than 51 million people counting on us.