Opinion: Word choice matters more than you think


Brett Sayles

Misusing mental health-related terms can often prove harmful to those who have mental health disorders, as it minimizes one’s feelings and makes them feel worse about their mental state.

“That’s so OCD of me.”

“I feel sad; my depression must be kicking in.”

“I just had a mental breakdown.”

“Are they psychotic?”

“That’s so crazy.”

Terms that describe or are related to mental health disorders only serve as labels for the giant glacier of internal suffering they represent. Despite the severe weight these words carry, they have been desensitized and normalized to become part of society’s everyday vernacular; they have lost their true meanings. 

To the people who really suffer from these mental illnesses, it hurts to hear mental health disorder-related terms be used to simply add extra emphasis to a point someone is trying to make. By throwing them out casually in conversation, the symptoms and emotions of the afflicted are belittled and make them feel as if their mental health needs are not as crucial. 

To put it plainly, it is insensitive and offensive to use such words. This is not an overstatement, either. I heard an interesting conversation where someone complained to their friends that they had a panic attack the other night stressing over a big assignment. Initially, I felt bad; I knew that panic episodes were no fun, so I sympathized with them. But then, they went further to explain what made them think they had one. I took a step back and realized what they described was not actually what they said it was. 

They used the term “panic attack” to describe a time of stress, but that does not nearly come close to what that phrase really means. The individual used that term to exaggerate their situation when people who actually have panic attacks must endure a far more difficult time. A racing heart, weakness, a sense of terror, breathing difficulty, and blurred vision are just some of the possible varieties of symptoms one can experience during the period. That person was in no place to call their “episode” a panic attack. 

Personally, I have only had one in my entire life. But recalling that I genuinely felt like I was dying during those several minutes, it did not exactly feel great to hear someone throw out that term so casually, especially since they did not know what it is like to suffer through an actual panic attack. 

This story is only one of countless examples of improper usage of mental health disorder-related vocabulary. A survey done by the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health discovered that from 2005 to 2015, there was a drastic increase in depression among young Americans, most rapidly among teens from ages twelve to seventeen. This has always been an issue, but now more than ever, it is crucial for people to become more aware of their word choice when talking about themselves.

To some, it may seem a bit unnecessary to be so careful about a silly word here and there. Why can’t people just be less sensitive? After all, they are just words. 

Though using such terms may not always hurt an individual’s mentality, and people often do not mean any harm, we still must be careful. Mental health disorders are not something you can identify someone with just by looking at or even speaking with them. Especially since mental health rates are so high nowadays, it is best to be safe and avoid these terms, rather than saying something and contribute to one’s mental health decline. 

Language is constantly changing, so although these mental-health-related terms did have a particular meaning before, they have arguably evolved with the development of society to mean something else. 

In reality, the meaning of these terms has not truly been altered; over time, people have made assumptions and continuously perpetuated misconceptions about these disorders, making them more widely known by incorrect notions rather than their real definitions. Not only does this leave many to speculate and “diagnose” themselves with conditions they do not have, but it also harms the stability of people who are actually afflicted by these disorders by influencing them to believe in the stigmatization of the matter. 

Let’s take Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for example. OCD is characterized by having excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive anxiety-decreasing behaviors (compulsions). It revolves around trying to control the stress caused by one’s intrusive thoughts. It is not a synonym for being particular or organized. But, the way the media have portrayed OCD and other disorders, and people making assumptions, has likely influenced society to become used to the version of the terms that are not true to the actual traits of the condition. 

Even though the whole dilemma is an issue that needs to be solved swiftly, stopping an entire society from using words that come to mind naturally seems impossible. Their meanings have been simplified so much that these once heavy, impactful words are now not even noticed by most. 

Altering an entire planet’s way of speaking and thinking will probably never be entirely achievable, as has been seen countless times throughout history. However, with advocacy and awareness, people can learn to be more conscious of what they say before they say it and slowly initiate and expand the change.

You can never tell who has a mental health disorder, so veer on the safe side of the road and choose your words carefully. 

*For more information on mental health terms and phrases to avoid, click here.