Even if we see ourselves as advocates for increasing acceptance and understanding for people dealing with mental health issues, most of us are probably unconsciously contributing to mental health stigma.
We talk about being “depressed” on gloomy days, or “OCD” about the cleanliness of our homes. We remark that our friend has “PTSD” from a bad work week, or is “paranoid” about germs.
Most of us are guilty of having spoken these terms and phrases in everyday conversation. If not, then we’ve definitely heard others use them colloquially. We aren’t being literal, and there’s no real harm, right? Wrong — and the damage we are doing is probably much more significant than we realize.
This misappropriation of such terms belittles mental health conditions and frames them in a negative light. And it impairs the ability of all of us, including those actually confronted with mental illness, to discern between critical mental health issues and exaggerated expressions.
Before you roll your eyes or claim that this is simply political correctness run amuck, did you realize that 60 percent of the 50 million Americans suffering from mental health issues actually fail to get the help they often desperately need? And that stigma is one of the main barriers holding people back from care?
Terms like “anxiety” and “addiction” are real mental health diagnoses affecting 30 million Americans, and they have serious medical ramifications. By loosely using these terms, we dilute the severity of these conditions and contribute to the growing misconception that mental health diagnoses and care do not require specialized training.
Such clinical language was developed by mental health experts for the purpose of exacting diagnoses and treatments in the same manner that physical medical terms have been defined. We all know not to assert that our leg is broken without conclusive evidence produced by an X-ray and a medical professional’s diagnosis. Yet, we often fail to think twice before saying we are “depressed.” The truth is that most of us are not capable of performing an X-ray or diagnosing depression.
The repeated pattern of people inaccurately issuing self-diagnoses and stigmatizing mental health conditions, even inadvertently, is more than just a hurtful trend. What if the watering down of mental health care terms is actually stopping young people who truly do suffer from mental illness from seeking the treatment? Our careless vocabulary could ultimately be obscuring the path to recovery for those who are suffering.
The time is long overdue to redefine mental health and create a new vocabulary surrounding treatment within society. We need to communicate responsibly with each other, and particularly the next generation, about mental health issues.
Today, the nation’s most at-risk demographic is young people under the age of 18, and 75 percent of mental health problems are typically identified before the age of 24. Studies have shown that patients are much more likely to improve and continue getting effective treatment, if they begin therapy by that age.
We must work to ensure that our youth and young adults understand the true meaning of mental health terms and that they don’t hesitate to seek help if they need it. We also should embrace modern channels and communication methods that can make receiving mental health care, for both young and old alike, as accessible, comfortable and relatable as possible.
Many of us have become desensitized to the genuine mental health challenges of today due in part to pop culture’s haphazard use of its terminology. But it is our collective responsibility to pause, and consider steps we all can take, even those of us who are not therapists, to address modern mental health care needs.
To help our friends, neighbors and community members receive the mental health care they need, we must first become cognizant of the roadblocks we may be inadvertently throwing in their path.
So, the next time we think about using terms like “bipolar,” “anxious,” or “depressed,” let’s take a moment to pause and consider the significant repercussions for mental health stigma. We must choose our words carefully to ensure that we are part of the solution, rather than the problem.