Stigma and the Misuse of Mental Health Terminology

I can’t believe it’s already August! I hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful summer weather we are having here in Massachusetts.


In today’s blog, we take on the improper use of mental health related terms. Enjoy!


We live in a society where all too often words associated with serious mental illnesses are misused and thrown around. While most people do not do this with malicious intent, there is a lack of education around what it truly means to suffer from a mental illness, and why these words matter. Below are three ways in which I’ve heard mental health related terms improperly used, followed by descriptions of what these terms truly mean. Note that we are not seeking to fully define each disorder; rather, we are providing some of the most common symptoms of each one merely for reference and educational purposes.


  • “That’s so OCD”


What the stigma means: “I have to keep everything super organized. If a poster’s slightly tilted, it bothers me, and I have to fix it”.


What OCD really is: OCD is a disorder categorized by intrusive, unwanted and disturbing thoughts that can cause individuals to ruminate, and feel guilt and shame. Often these thoughts will cause individuals to act (compulsions) to get rid of the thoughts. Types of OCD stretch farther than a fear of germs and a need to be organized, though these most certainly can be symptoms. Other categories of OCD fall under the category of relationships, morality and guilt, superstitions, religion, intrusive thoughts, perfectionism, hoarding, Body Dysmorphic disorder, Body Focused Repetitive behaviors, checking, and contamination to name some.


Example: Layla gets an intrusive harm thought stating that her brother is going to get into a horrible accident and die. Responsively, she proceeds to call her brother every 7 minutes, because she believes that if she dosen’t, she won’t be able to keep him safe, or prevent him from dying.


  • “I’m so depressed”.


What the stigma means: “I really wanted to go out with my friends tonight, but instead I’m caught up at work. I’m so upset I have to miss out.”


What depression really is: Depression causes a shift in a person’s energy, quality of life, and sense of self–often one that isn’t outwardly apparent due to the lengths that many will go to mask their struggles. Symptoms can include low-self esteem, changes in sleep patterns (excessive sleeping or not sleeping at all), changes in eating patterns (excessive overeating or undereating) a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, self-loathing, an inability to concentrate or remember, social isolation, and uncontrollable outbursts of anger or tears, to name some. Depression can also cause one to experience suicidal thoughts and/or attempts.


Example: Kelsey used to be an active part of her school’s dance team. When depression suddenly hits her, she stops attending practice, and starts hiding in her room. She keeps her door locked, and sleeps 14+ hours a day. She can’t bring herself to eat, and finds herself starting to feel weak, and exhausted constantly.


  • “I’m so bipolar”.


Stigma: “I’ll buy a shirt and love it, but then two days later I’ll decide I hate it.”


What bipolar disorder really is: Bipolar disorder is divided into Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Bipolar I disorder comprises of changes in mood and behavior ranging from depression to mania, while those with Bipolar II disorder experience intense waves of depression, but less extreme mania (hypomania). During manic or hypomanic episodes one can experience symptoms of impulsive behaviors with little thought for consequences, limited need for sleep, excessive energy or restlessness, the ability to complete an excessive number of tasks in a short amount of time, and dissociative thought patterns. Depression can cause one to cry, have a negative outlook on life, make poor eye contact with others, as well as the symptoms listed in the previous section.


Example: Kaylene is really stressed about getting into college. Her bipolar I disorder triggers her mania, and she stays up for the next 2 days, completing a total of 35 college applications. Eventually, her tiredness catches up to her, and she crashes. Upon awaking, she starts questioning if she’s even smart enough to get into college at all, and becomes severely depressed, not eating or leaving her room for the next few days.


If you ever hear someone misusing a term associated with mental illness, kindly correct them–not aggressively, but rather in a way that promotes education. Refer them to resources where they can learn more about symptoms associated with mental illness, or, if you yourself have personal experience with this and feel able, explain how this sort of stigma has affected you, or someone you know. Words are very powerful, so it’s important that others use them properly.


Thanks for tuning in, friends!


Much Love,


Heather Rotman

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