May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

We Shouldn’t Joke About It

I recently delivered a presentation as part of a local high school’s mental health programming. I explored with the students information surrounding awareness, symptoms, prevention and what to do if you or someone else is struggling. At one point I asked the students what we can intentionally not say in order to promote better mental health, and there was emphatic nodding when the answer given was, “We should not joke about it.”

It is somehow still part of our vocabulary to joke about mental illness. People make comments like, “I wish I could have an eating disorder!” or joke about suicide, diagnoses, mood disorders, etc., all in casual conversation. Meanwhile, others listen in—perhaps those who are struggling or know someone who is—and recognize the lack of compassion and lack of space to then share or discuss. Taking these subjects lightly limits the ability for people to feel safe, to feel seen, to feel as if their very real issues are valid or will be taken seriously by others.

I write this, and I hear feedback from readers telling me how on-point this subject can be, and then hear the same one-liners that perpetuate weight-stigma and poor mental health awareness from those same readers. I truly believe that this is not because of malice or ill intent. It is because of such an ingrained cultural phenomenon of using humor to cope, and not recognizing how what may feel innocent can actually hurt others.

I implore you, reader, to take a moment and note how to speak about mental health. Do we, in our casual or deep conversations, joke about mental health struggles? This could include such comments as, “Your room is so neat—do you have OCD?” First, this does not accurately summarize the struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. Second, if the person is struggling, the casual remark likely boxes him or her in from feeling safe to answer. Third, if neither the speaker nor the listener struggles with this disorder, the statement perpetuates the permission to joke about real issues.

I think about this especially as vaccines are being doled out to more and more people of different age groups, and people have expressed that they feel as if they are finally coming out of the woodwork. More events are being planned; there is increased socializing, a hopefulness toward resuming a semblance of life from “before.”

Already comments are being made about expectations going forward—whether about weight, or pressures to resume all aspects of life before March 2020. People feel the need to excuse themselves if they did not “take advantage of quarantine”—as if this should have been an expectation to better oneself while trying to manage physical and mental health during a terrifying global pandemic that left so much fear and grief in its wake.

People who focused on their bodies as a means of coping are now worried about how this might change, and those who did not are worried about being judged.

There is so much anxiety present at this time. People became accustomed to a routine, albeit a painful one, and now we are beginning to leave this protective shell so that we may engage with the world. There isn’t a time to joke about mental health, to judge others. And now is especially a time to have the active intention to counter this. To ask one another how we are—not to comment on appearance or accomplishments or to present expectations.

Instead of asking, “What did you do during quarantine?” ask, “How did you feel?” Ask, “How are you doing now?” and “What can I do to be helpful?” If someone jokes about mental health, gently suggest that isn’t OK. When people tell me in a clearly joking attitude, “Maybe I have an eating disorder,” I ask them if they’d like support. Some tell me I take this too seriously; but I respond that we need to take this seriously because so many do not, and I hear firsthand how damaging these jokes can be to those who are indeed suffering.

And if you’re not yet in a place to speak up, that’s OK; but please do not laugh at the joke. Show how you’d want to be treated by treating others this way: show compassion, ask questions, pause if you feel judgment or bias arising.

I am looking forward to seeing you all out and about, still taking care of your mental and physical health and doing so in a way that allows those who are suffering—as so many more people are after this past year and its changes—to feel that there is a space. Please stop joking; stop judging. Be an example of openness toward pursuing mental health.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, is licensed and works virtually in New York and New Jersey with those struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating, body image dissatisfaction, and general mental health concerns. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more, visit www.temimah.com.

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