Describing Mental Illness in Language that Matters

by Kristen Abell

Although I had already been thinking a lot about the topic of how we use emotions to describe mental illness, a friend of mine recently shared a Twitter thread in which someone discussed the idea of depression as “extreme sadness.” They quickly refuted the idea that they experienced depression that way – instead, it often looked like irritability, anger, apathy, etc. This led me to express an idea that I’d been mulling over: the idea that “sadness” in depression looks a lot different than sadness for someone who does not experience depression.

I believe that, in this same way, “anxiety” does not look the same for someone who is actually diagnosed with anxiety disorder or “panic” does not fully express the emotions in a panic attack. And so on. So I reached out to my friends and followers on Twitter and Facebook to see if I was the only one that felt this way – turns out I wasn’t. Here are a few of the thoughts people shared with me:

“Sadness is external for me – can be explained and felt. Depression comes and goes without warning or explanation, numb.” (Mallory)

“When you are depressed there is a sense of permanence to your sadness. It sits like a brick.” (Scott)

“I think there’s feeling anxious and experiencing anxiety. The anxiety I experience is an unhealthy loop of thinking and feeling and can become all-consuming. It’s required me to learn how to think differently than my unhealthy default to get through. Feeling anxious is more like some butterflies in the stomach/nerves that is tied to a particular happening and then dissipates.” (Andrea)

“It’s so hard to explain that sadness ≠ depression to anyone who’s never been depressed.” (Karyl)

“It feels like looking out a window and knowing you should be outside, but you physically can’t make it out there.” (Annie)

I remember hearing at one point that there were multiple words to describe the idea of “snow” in the Eskimo language because they lived in it and had many more variations on its consistency and texture*. I feel like this is similar to how those of us with mental illness might describe that illness to ourselves. Rarely when I am in the throes of an episode of depression would I use “sad” to describe how I feel at that moment. Tortured, stretched to breaking, numb, raw, devastated, crushed – these are all things I can vividly remember feeling at various points during my depression. But the outside world has boiled this all down to depression = sadness. It’s just snow to them.

Anyone who has read a post of mine before probably knows that I’m a big believer in erasing the stigma that is associated with mental illness in our society. But I know that we have a lot of work left to do in that area. And one of the things I think that we can do is find more ways to describe what it means to have a mental illness to those around us. Maybe we need to stop just saying, “I have depression.” Instead, we could say “I struggled to get out of bed this morning because it felt like I had a weight on my head and my chest, and it just took all my energy to get dressed, get in the car and get here. So I’m going to try my hardest, but I’m working through a bit of a fog today, okay?” Or instead of “I have anxiety,” we could try, “I feel both like throwing up and like I can’t breathe, and none of it has anything to do with whether or not I want to do this thing – it’s all about the fact that this thing is new to me. I don’t know what to expect, and that makes me scared. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s hard.”

Okay, obviously neither of those instead statements are tweetable, but aren’t they more accurate? And for someone who hasn’t experienced mental illness, they definitely provide a better description for where you are at in that moment – which is one of the things they may really need to better understand the illness and you.

So give it a try – how do you really feel today?


*Okay, it’s not exactly accurate, but it’s going to help me make my point, so let’s just go with it. For clarification on this, you can check out the ever-faithful Wikipedia.