Thought Catalog

How Language Impacts The Stigma Against Mental Health (And What We Must Do To Change It)

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Trigger Warning: suicide

Language is powerful.

Even dead languages are still taught and revered today (anyone else take Latin in high school?) The rate at which language changes is fascinating. And now, it evolves faster than ever before in an effort to stay relevant to the current generation. Dictionaries are updated every year to include brand new words and new definitions of old words that are being used differently. For the most part, these shifts are great. A growing language is one way to measure societal success. It means there are new inventions and new ideas that mark continued growth.

Not every change is positive. The mental health field has been especially susceptible to the negative ones. Over the past decade or so, it’s become commonplace to use mental disorder terminology to describe common, often trivial situations or problems. It seems harmless. They’ve been used so often they’ve become integrated into and accepted as part of our everyday language. The truth is that by using these phrases to describe everyday problems, we’re trivializing mental illness. Thanks to this trivialization, those who suffer now have the added hardship of having to prove they really need help and aren’t just being dramatic or asking for attention. They can’t simply say, “I have OCD” or “I’m depressed” because these have become common ways to describe all sorts of things.

I’m not preaching to you from atop a high horse. I’m guilty. Not long ago I was talking to an acquaintance about music. I said, “I’m so OCD about volume. I like it to be an even number.” She proceeded to nicely explain to me that she suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She told me that when she changes the volume, she has to touch the knob exactly six times before actually moving it. And she had to do it every single time. There was a list of other things, some so debilitating I wondered how she was able to even get out of bed in the morning. I realized that my particularity with volume was nothing like what she dealt with every single day. But after years of hearing other people refer to their specific preferences as “OCD,” I had internalized that as acceptable language. In using “OCD” so glibly, I had diminished her struggle with the disorder and that is completely unfair to her.

You probably don’t even realize you’re doing it. I didn’t. I’m grateful she took the time to explain it to me instead of just shrugging it off and letting me continue to do it. It’s my hope that by pointing out some of the main offenders I can help you all to do the same. Here are five common phrases we use that trivialize mental illness:

1) “I’m so OCD.”

The term “OCD” is often used to show a particularity or preference, like how I find satisfaction in keeping my volume at an even number. In reality, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a crippling condition that often traps the person suffering in debilitating cycles of recurrent thoughts and behaviors that they can’t control. These obsessions often lead to rituals or compulsions that have to be performed in an effort to alleviate the anxiety. That’s a far cry from wanting the volume to be an even number, isn’t it?

2) “That was ADD of me.”

ADD is often used as a synonym for distraction. You might be talking to a friend and zone out. If they call you out, you might laugh and say you had an ADD moment. Attention-Deficit Disorder is so much more than just an issue of distraction. Especially in adults, it can cause anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Often, adults with untreated ADD have emotional imbalances, can find it hard to obtain employment, and struggle with meaningful relationships.  By all means, if you struggle with ADD and find that joking (“I had an ADD moment”) helps you cope with your disorder, please do so. But if you aren’t struggling, there are better ways to describe your fleeting moments of distraction. 

3) “This is so stressful. I’m about to have a panic attack.”

This one hits close to home for me. As someone who suffers from a panic disorder, the overuse of the phrase “panic attack” makes it difficult for me to be taken seriously when I’m actually having one. One time in college I felt very anxious after a test. I was walking out with a classmate and said, “I think I’m having a panic attack.” He laughed and said, “I know, right? I probably failed.” Not long after, I was holed up in the bathroom trying to console myself. If he had taken me seriously instead of thinking I was being dramatic about the test, he might have taken time to help.  Anxiety often gets misinterpreted as regular stress. People throw the terms around interchangeably. While most everyone experiences moments of anxiety, it’s a disorder when it becomes frequent, happens for no reason, or starts impacting your everyday life. Panic attacks are serious business. They come in all shapes and sizes but the really bad ones can make the person suffering feel like they’re going to die: racing heart, shortness of breath, chest pains, passing out and other serious symptoms. So the next time you’re stressed, take a moment to consider those who really do have panic attacks before you use it.

4) “I’m so depressed.”

This one is tough because ‘sad’ and ‘depressed’ have basically become synonyms in our language. When you look up the symptoms of depression, sadness is even listed there. Those who have never experienced depression can’t understand how debilitating it is. It’s a disorder that controls your entire life. It’s a sadness that consumes you to the point where you might feel no point in living. When you equate your sadness to depression, you diminish the severity of the actual disorder. People get used to hearing the word to describe every day lows, the ones that eventually go away. This flippant usage has birthed responses like “It’s okay. Things will work out” or even worse, “Just get over it.” And yeah, no one wants to hear these, but when you’re depressed, saying stuff like this can actually be deadly. When you’re struggling with depression, responses like this fuel the disorder by creating guilt, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. If we stop using ‘depressed’ to mean ‘sad,’ those who have depression might have an easier time asking for help. They’ll be taken seriously and not mistaken for ‘just being sad.’ 

5) “I would just kill myself.”

If you take one thing away from this piece, please let it be this: do not trivialize suicide. I’ve heard people say, “If I looked like that, I would just kill myself,” and “If I fail, I’ll just kill myself.” People sometimes look at others misfortune and say, “If that happened to me, I would kill myself.” It’s become a way to emphasize a bad situation. It’s also used to indicate boredom or annoyance like when people make a gun shape with their fingers, put it to their head, and make a gunshot noise. Those who struggle with suicidal thoughts often never reach out for help until it’s too late. I believe societal attitudes about suicide are largely to blame. Changing our language is one step we can take towards changing those attitudes.  We need to stop using suicide to illustrate negativity. It makes those who are struggling feel worse about themselves and less likely to reach out for support.

As a side note: It’s a myth that talking to someone about suicide will make them more likely to follow through. If you know someone who is struggling, talk to them about it. Be direct. Ask them if they are contemplating suicide. If they say yes, help them find help and be a support through the process. Sometimes all people need is a reminder that there is someone out there who cares.

There are so many others. Far more than the length of this article can allow. Everything from using the term ‘bipolar’ to describe everyday mood swings to calling someone ‘schizophrenic’ if they do something out of character. If you’ve used any of these phrases (I have), you aren’t a bad person. It isn’t your fault that you’ve internalized language that’s become widely accepted and used regularly. But, if you choose to, you can make a conscious effort to stop. The best part about language is that it can change and we can be the catalyst. We can stop trivializing these very serious disorders and create a safer, more constructive place for those who are struggling. There’s already so much stigma surrounding mental illness. If we change the way we talk about it, bringing these phrases up in meaningful conversation instead of using them as a way to dramatize our everyday lives, we can take steps towards removing stigma. TC mark

image – girl/afraid
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