“I’m depressed because I finished binge-watching my show on Netflix.”
“I’m so OCD about dirty dishes being left in the sink.”
How many phrases like this have we all used before? There is a trend in our language where we tend to use mental illnesses or disorders as adjectives to describe how we feel about a situation.
We are all aware of stigmas that surround mental illnesses, but one simple way to get rid of them is by using the right words to describe what we are feeling, so as not to degenerate an actual illness into a feeling or symptom that can be easily fixed.
Until recently, I was not aware of the effect that this language can have and how it stems from a lack of understanding surrounding mental illnesses. It wasn’t until an individual I am close to was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I became more attentive to how OCD is generally perceived.
When we picture a person with OCD, images of TV characters like Monk or Emma Pillsbury come to mind. They are compulsive about cleanliness and order; however, these portrayals are only showing a small corner of what OCD actually is.
According to WebMD, OCD “is a potentially disabling illness that traps people in endless cycles of repetitive thoughts and behaviors. People with OCD are plagued by recurring and distressing thoughts, fears or images they cannot control.”
It is the obsessive side of OCD that separates this disorder from those of us who simply prefer things to be neat. Some lesser known obsessions of OCD are the fear of making a mistake, of thinking evil, sinful or sexual thoughts or a constant need for reassurance.
Those who have been diagnosed with OCD, or depression or schizophrenia, don’t want to be plagued with the symptoms of the illness. Rather, they would like to manage them and live a healthy life despite them.
Dr. Zsofia Demjen, a linguist who has spoken about the potential harm stemming from this kind of language, said it can diminish serious illnesses into problems that are temporary, avoidable or less serious than they really are.
“The potential problem is that ‘I’m depressed’ now means ‘I’m sad,’” Demjen said. “Then how does someone who actually has depression describe his or her illness or how he or she feels? How can people differentiate the much more complex, much more intense thing they have from this thing everyone always claims ownership of?”
Part of the battle of removing stigmas stems from the idea that we avoid or are afraid of what we don’t understand.
On March 20, the children’s TV show Sesame Street introduced a new character named Julia, who has autism. The other characters are introduced to Julia and to how she does things differently, because she has autism. Sesame Street is taking an opportunity to portray someone who is less understood, in order to educate kids, and adults, about acceptance and understanding for those who are different.
While autism is not entirely the same as other mental disorders like depression or OCD, we need to have the same desire to learn about all mental illnesses in order to understand those who have them.
It is never our job to try change someone’s behavior or brain function if they have a mental disorder, rather, it is our job to try to understand and support them.
We can strive to give mental illnesses the seriousness they deserve. Changing our language by avoiding these casual references to illness is a small yet significant way to shatter stigmas.