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Colloquial use of mental health terms and why it needs to be stopped

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Every time my cousin would start a story, she would go off on another tangent and start talking about something else. When someone would point it out, she would say “Oops, sorry, my ADHD is acting up”.  And just the other day, one of my friends remarked, “I hate it when people make a mess around themselves. It hurts my OCD to look at them”. 

I once overheard a classmate say. “I hate presentations. Talking in front of the class gives me Anxiety”. 

There’s a BIG PROBLEM in talking like this. Not only are the statements grammatically incorrect, they are also extremely disturbing for people who actually have these mental illnesses. ADHD, OCD and Anxiety are real mental health disorders.  These are not fictional stories made up by someone’s imagination. Casual references like this to medical diagnoses undermine the severity of certain disorders and contribute to the greater shame around obtaining a mental health diagnosis.  Dr. Lauren, a UK based clinical psychologist, says that this is linked to a phenomenon known as “semantic satiation”; where there is constant repetition of a word until all meaning is lost. This loss of meaning aids in the persistence,  spread of stigma and misinformation about such conditions. “The actual meaning of the term gets diluted and gets associated with simpler and more fleeting experiences. It normalises illness”, says Dr. Zsofia Demjen, a linguist who studies the intersections of language, mind and health. 

This situation is extremely distressing for someone who actually suffers from the illness. When they hear these terms being used to describe fleeting feelings, they are unable to use them to describe the much more complex feelings of their disorder- something that can be extremely debilitating. And when people actually show the symptoms, they are deemed to be “overreacting” and are told to “snap out of it”- their symptoms are not taken as seriously as they should be. 

Another problem with using these terms so loosely is that we end up unintentionally prioritizing one section of society over another. Using these terms makes it sound as though only some people’s minds are healthy, valuable and desirable. 

You may ask how big a problem this really is? Or how many people really use mental health terms so unconsciously? The results are shocking. A study conducted in 2007 by Rose, Thornicroft, Pinfold and Kassam in England aimed to investigate the extent of stigma in relation to how they refer to people with mental illness. The study was conducted on 14-year-old school students. The results showed that 400 of the 472 participating students (85%) provided 250 words and terms to describe a person with mental illness. Five themes were identified from this data. Popular derogatory terms’ (116 items) accounted for nearly half of the words examined. The second theme occurred less often and was described as ‘negative emotional state’ (61 items). The third theme demonstrated the confusion of young people between physical disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health problems (38 items). The use of psychiatric diagnoses (15 items) and terms related to violence (9 items) were unexpectedly uncommon. This is referred to as negative evaluation. 

When terms such as “OCD” or “Bipolar” are used casually, they are being used to refer to negative behaviour and not a clinical diagnosis. These words acquire a negative connotation and then when someone is diagnosed with these disorders, they have a negative instead of a neutral approach to their illness. 

Most of us are guilty of using these terms loosely, especially Anxiety, OCD and Depression. 

Anxiety and Panic Attacks are very different from feeling nervous. Anxiety is a generalized feeling of fear and uneasiness; it is usually vague and not directed at anything in particular. Nervousness on the other hand, is a feeling of uneasiness or fear specifically directed at a particular object or activity. Panic attacks are the overwhelming feeling of anxiety, where one loses the ability to cope with their surroundings to such an extent that they feel like they may die. It is usually accompanied by the feeling of suffocation and extreme helplessness. Panic Attacks are commonly interpreted as heart attacks by those suffering from it. They are definitely not a fright that lasts for a few seconds. 

OCD is not just a predisposition of liking things to be kept neatly, nor is it just being “particular” about certain things. And it surely is not as pop culture has often deemed it -Obsessive Christmas/ Coffee /Cricket /Corgi Disorder. It is a very real and debilitating mental disorder, characterised by repetitive, unwanted thoughts and compulsive actions that interfere with daily life.  It is a type of anxiety disorder because the obsessions can cause severe anxiety and feelings of self-doubt. 

Depression is known as the “common cold” of mental disorders. However, it is also one of the most common disorders to be trivialised. Being depressed does not mean having a bad day, being tired or saddened for a passing moment (or even just a day). It is a very serious mental illness in which patients show symptoms daily for at least two weeks to such an extent that it affects their work, social life and interpersonal relationships. It causes people to lose interest in things they previously enjoyed doing. It is an absolute lack of hope, energy and self-esteem. Sleep becomes extremely difficult and some people may lose their appetite while others may overeat as a coping mechanism.

The reason why mental health terms are often used so lightly is because unlike physical illness, there are not as many outward signs of a mental illness. It is easy to say that someone is “being” OCD, because you cannot see it. But just like you would not say someone who was breathless has a heart disease, you cannot label someone who is sad as being depressed. Our words have power and we must use that power responsibly- by not trivialising illnesses and reinforcing ableism.  

This article was first published by Margika, on its medium blog page 

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