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The SparkNotes Blog

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Auntie SparkNotes: I Don’t Like Jokes About Mental Illness

Hello Auntie SparkNotes,

I am an upcoming junior in high school who went to a small elementary school through K-8. There, I had a group of friends and we would tell each other EVERYTHING and we were together pretty much 24/7. As fate would have it though, we all went to different high schools and lost our closeness after graduation.

However, I invited them over to my house for a mini party, and here’s where the problem lies. I almost cancelled the party because of my social anxiety and general anxiety. (Diagnosed sophomore year.) I actually did cancel the party the month before, when it was originally scheduled. No one knows and I’m not sure if any of my family knows besides my parents, about my anxiety. My friends and I were talking about school and how hard some of our classes were when one of my friends was joking and said her English class made her want to jump out the window. I thought we could have common ground in this, so I asked her about it and she made it clear she was joking about jumping. That really hit home for me because it was because of a class that we realized I have anxiety, and the things she was joking about, was my reality before I got put on my medicine.

I didn’t find her joking about jumping out of a window funny and I still don’t. This friend of mine has and had a habit to say that she’s crazy, to be “cool” as it has become a trend of late to open up about mental problems. It’s not cool though. I have social and general anxiety (on medicine), as does my dad. However, my mom has even worse mental problems and so did my paternal grandfather. I don’t find mental illness jokes funny.

How should I approach this if situations like this happen again? Should I tell people? Am I turning her molehill of a “joke” into a mountain?

I say this with the utmost compassion, Sparkler: Yes, I think you probably are.

And to be clear, I’m not saying that you have to love jokes that invoke mental illness in some way, or even that every last joke ever made on the subject is necessarily appropriate or in good taste. You’re not required to have a sense of humor about something that’s caused you serious pain; you can even ask the people close to you to avoid making light of certain issues around you (although it’ll be better for you, and your relationships, if you err on the side of tolerance/generosity, since acting like the language police is one of the quickest ways in the world to lose friends and alienate people.)

But there’s a big difference between asking for a little sensitivity when it comes to the way your friends talk about mental illness, and jumping down people’s throats every time they quip that a frustrating situation makes death look fun by comparison. “I’d rather [insert form of egregious self-harm here] than [insert annoying thing here]” is such a well-known, age-old figure of speech—and it is truly not a joke at the expense of mentally ill people, anymore than “Killing two birds with one stone” is an endorsement of actual animal cruelty, or “These shoes are murder!” is a joke at the expense of the (hopefully very small) cohort of people who have been beaten to death with a platform clog. You don’t have to use expressions like this yourself, of course, but it’s profoundly silly to insist on taking them literally, or to kick up a fuss to try and prevent other people from using them.

Which brings us to this: Based on your letter, I’m not actually sure that your friend is making light of mental illness when she refers to herself as “crazy,” or when she uses a common figure of speech to describe how a difficult class makes her feel. And I’m particularly wondering about the part where you accuse your friend of being a faker and a poser who’s just trying to capitalize on mental illness because she thinks it’s cool. It’s not that nobody ever does this—mental health issues are receiving a lot of sympathy and visibility these days, and that will always draw a certain contingent of attention-seeking fakers—but it’s hard to connect the dots between her behavior as you’ve described it and your interpretation of her motivations (unless there’s something else going on that you haven’t mentioned.)

So, what should you do? Two things: First, realize that people can’t be sensitive to a struggle they don’t know you’re going through. If you want your friends to not talk or joke about certain topics, you’ll have to explain as much (and to keep in mind that when you ask people to censor themselves for the sake of your comfort, you’re asking for a favor, which means that you can’t go nuclear if and when someone slips up and offends you. Always try to extend the understanding to other people that you ask them to extend to you.)

But second, because mental illness is so serious to you, it’s important that you give your first angry reaction to any “jokes” on the subject a second look, to be sure that you’re not blowing insignificant events way out of proportion. A good rule not just for you, but for everyone, is that the more sensitive and personal an issue is to you, the higher the bar should be when it comes to speaking up about it; it’s how you’ll avoid jumping down people’s throats over every minor or mis-perceived offense. And while choosing your battles sparingly make you more likely to be listened to when you do raise an objection, it also teaches you a skill we all have to learn: To be comfortable with a little bit of discomfort, to be more tolerant and less self-serious, and to be at peace in a world where not every joke is going to be funny to you.

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