Hyperboles can be powerful and effective in communicating one’s message; they are an important literary device utilized in both writing and speech. However, hyperboles can quickly become insensitive, if not outright offensive, when mental health issues are used as the basis for such exaggerations.
I would like to preface by saying that most students who do not suffer from a mental illness, yet often use mental health illnesses in their everyday speech, are doing so out of ignorance. I have not run into anyone whose intentions seem malicious. However, intended or not, words can hurt. With September being suicide prevention and awareness month, I wanted to shed light on the implications behind everyday comments, such as:
“That class makes me want to throw myself off Cadaver,”
“Writing this paper is giving me depression,”
“I’ll probably kill myself if I have to walk all the way back to my dorm to retrieve my laptop charger,”
“Maybe I’ll drink bleach so I don’t have to take this test tomorrow,” and
“Oh my god, I can’t believe I embarassed myself like that last night, I want to kill myself!”
These are a small sample of phrases I’ve heard only this school year, let alone in my lifetime. To underscore my point on how casual dark humor affects others, I’ll describe a few of my experiences in the past year.
While some are unaware of the meaning behind their dark humor, suicide jokes can be a warning sign for someone struggling. A couple of summers ago, one of my coworkers at my new job constantly cracked suicide jokes. His sentences were sprinkled with subtle, self-deprecating humor, and he especially excelled at slipping in a suicide method in every conversation. Given that it was my first week at the job, I refrained from saying anything the first few times he made insensitive jokes. However, after a couple of days, I realized that my passive refusal to join in for a laugh and comments weren’t having an effect on him. During one of our breaks with no other employees around, I asserted that I felt his jokes were extremely insensitive and disrespected people struggling with suicidal thoughts. For a minute, he was completely silent. After a while, he apologized and explained that joking about suicide was his coping mechanism for dealing with his own depression. Ever since then, we have been very close friends. His candor helped me realize that inappropriate mental health humor can be a cry for help.
Hanging out in the common room last year with a couple of hallmates, I asked one of them about his high school girlfriend. He said something along the lines of wondering how she was and how he might still have feelings for her. I could tell he was not completely over her, and I attempted to comfort him, saying “who knows, maybe you’ll get back together later in life.” Automatically, he responded: “who knows, maybe I’ll jump off a building.” Immediately, my demeanor changed from sympathetic to angry. I looked directly at him, my face ice cold, and told him to never say that again. Turning my back, I hurried to my dorm before the tears started to flow.
My hallmate could never have guessed that my brother committed suicide using that very method a few years before. In the moment, my mind was reeling to a recurring nightmare I’ve had over the years in which I would imagine being in my brother’s body, jumping off a building, and waking up right before my/his body meets the concrete. My hallmate had no clue how insensitive his hyperbole was, nor how it would affect me personally. He didn’t realize he was trivializing the struggles of the thousands of people who die from suicide every year. In that instance, I felt comfortable enough with him to call him out on his dark humor, but admittedly more often than not I silently seethe when hearing such ignorant exaggerations.
After a few minutes, I composed myself enough to go back to the common area. Calmly, I explained how insensitive it is to incorporate suicide or other mental health issues in nonchalant banter. Given that we were friends, I explained that his comment affected me more than most suicide jokes because it hit very close to home. Like most people I’ve confronted, he was deeply apologetic and seemed genuinely sorry for making the comment. He promised to make a conscious effort to eradicate such jokes from his repertoire of speech, and since then he has never made another dark joke in my presence. While I wish I could say that I always stick up for my beliefs around suicide/other mental health jokes, I fall short. Some of the upperclassmen on my sports team make suicide jokes in their everyday banter. Each time I hear their twisted humor, I grapple with what I should do: call them out or stay silent? When I perceive someone to be my superior, I typically avoid confrontation with them at all costs. Given how passionate I feel about eradicating suicide humor, I feel ashamed and angry at myself whenever I don’t speak up.
Another day came when I had had enough, and finally voiced my discomfort about mental health-based jokes to an upperclassman on my sports team. A dark joke was made at the beginning of practice by one of the seniors, and the entire run I wrestled with what I should say, if I ever worked up the courage to say anything at all. I didn’t come to a conclusion as to what I should do until the very end of practice. The upperclassman was about to leave by herself, and I saw my chance: I walked with her, and elucidated her on the implications of her words. I explained that I knew she wasn’t making those comments with any malicious intent, but her jokes were painful reminders of my loss, and likely affected others on our team as well. Like others I’ve talked to, she apologized profusely, and she even thanked me for bringing it up to her, admitting that she was ignorant about the impact her jokes could have.
I want to reiterate that for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, self-deprecating humor can be an important warning sign. However, with the normalization of suicide jokes, deciphering whether someone is just making a joke or is genuinely considering self-harm becomes increasingly difficult. Trivializing the struggles suicidal people face invalidates their serious mental health issues. I hope that everyone reading this article will make a conscious effort to eradicate mental health humor from their stock phrases, if such jokes are currently a part of their speech. I ask that everyone dissociate mental health issues with humor, and be cognizant of the implications of their words.