Lorraine Woiak
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Language and Mental Health

Is the use of mental health terms in everyday life contributing to stereotypes?

Everyday language can have a huge impact on those who understand the true meaning of words.

We all have used words to emphasize how we feel. "I feel depressed." "I'm OCD." "I'm having a panic attack." However, using language like this in everyday life may have a negative impact on those with mental illness. It contributes to stereotypes and creates stigma. These terms and phrases are often used incorrectly and may contribute to negative stereotypes about mental health issues. 

Watering Down the Meaning

Many of the terms used in common language are real medical terms and disorders. This being said, the meanings tend to change with misuse over time. We have seen this happen with other words before. For example, the term "gay" used to mean "happy". Over time this word became associated with being a homosexual. Whether for better or worse, meanings change. 

So what makes these terms any different? These terms are not just slang or language used to describe someone; they are real diagnoses and can greatly impact someone's life. When they are used to describe a lesser feeling or thrown around without thought, they loose their weight and true meaning. If someone has depression, they struggle through everyday life. It is not temporary sadness or having one rough day. When someone says "I'm depressed" without taking into account what that really means, it becomes common language. The definition of this becomes sad. A person with depression is seen simply as weak, unable to deal with normal emotion. 

This applies to any disorder. The common use of the word makes a diagnosis seem less valuable. You can even go as far to say that it is normalized. It seems like everyone is depressed or anxious. So why do you need treatment? The truth is that these are real issues that often times need to be addressed. When you hear something so often, you forget how detrimental it can be.

Creating the Stigma

As previously stated, the use of medical terminology in everyday life makes them less significant. This adds to the struggle of people who suffer from these disorders. When you hear everyday about someone being "depressed" it makes it seem like those with real depression are just weak and unable to deal with normal sadness. However, those who know anything about depression know it is more than just sadness. Depression is extreme and makes a enormous impact on one's life. This is the case of all disorders; panic disorders, personality disorders, anxiety, and OCD are just few more examples. A lack of education on mental illness and misuse of terms leads to discrimination and lack of empathy towards those who are diagnosed. The education system often requires that students take health courses but neglect to consider the benefits of teaching basic psychology. With proper education, people could become more understanding of what these diagnoses really mean. Most people do not mean harm when they use these terms to describe their feelings or life -- they just simply do not understand the impact of their words. 

Fighting the Stigma

The first step to fighting against the stigma of mental health is to raise awareness and educate. There are many ways to raise awareness for mental health. Some have done so through art and music while others through writing and formal presentations. The more creative, the better. But it is also important to do your own research first to make sure the information you want to get across is accurate. Often times, people attempt to base their arguments off of a single article or study. Always remember to read multiple studies before making up your mind and keep some sources on hand. People are often more likely to change their perspective if they are presented with reliable evidence.

While we want to encourage others, the change must begin with you. Set a good example and advocate for others. Monitor your own language, making sure you don't use these phrases before accusing someone else. It also helps to put people first when referring to someone who really does have mental health issues. Instead of saying "this depressed person" say "this person with depression". I also believe that these should not be brought up unless mental illness is the topic at hand. Not everyone is comfortable talking about their disabilities. Many with mental illnesses do not want to feel like their conditions define them, because they don't!

Language can be powerful. It's time we use it to help others. 

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