As more people have been reckoning with anxiety and depression, discussions around mental health have become more normalized. It’s fantastic that more people can see these conditions as medical issues that need treatment, but we haven’t gone far enough.
Now that we’ve learned what the monster under the bed is, it’s not scary anymore — it’s the actress crying in the bathroom in a TV show in which her whole character’s personality is being sad and pretty; it’s advertisements for antidepressants and telehealth services.
In many ways, anxiety and depression have been reduced to ordinary facets of life, while people with less common, “scarier” conditions such as borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder and schizophrenia are still reduced to caricatures or the punchline of a joke.
To help create a more supportive dialogue around mental health, here are some phrases we should put on the shelf.
“Math class gives me PTSD.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder is caused when trauma alters a person’s brain pathways and chemistry, causing them to have heightened anxiety in most situations and in certain cases, flashbacks.
“Math class” is an example, but a lot of people, especially teenagers, throw around the term PTSD to compare their annoyances to life-altering trauma. It’s belittling. A lot of people with PTSD question the validity of it; those affected feel like their experiences weren’t bad enough to warrant the disorder, so equating trivial things to a genuine source of trauma is damaging to their self-perception.
“Dirty dishes give me OCD.”
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is usually intrusive thoughts. People with OCD often experience horrible feelings, rules and urges they didn’t create.
It seems obvious that most people use this expression as a hyperbole and that the real condition isn’t a joke, but once I started listening for this phrase, I heard it a lot. OCD is not an adjective; it’s an illness. While OCD seems common compared to others on this list, depending on the severity, OCD can be one of the most debilitating mental illnesses (U.S. National Library of Medicine).
“I’m so bipolar.”
There are several types of bipolar disorder, but the common thread among them is major depressive episodes. These often come between periods of more manageable depression and mania or hypomania.
“Sorry I’m so bipolar” or “sorry that’s so bipolar” is a phrase not only have I heard other people say, but it comes out of the Big Book of Commonly Used Emma-isms. Or it used to. I said this to reference mood swings or a dramatic change of opinion. The latter are better words that actually mean what I was trying to say and don’t perpetuate a stigma that people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are unstable, fickle or out of touch with reality.
Phrases like this normalize the idea that being different, sick or neurodivergent is bad. That things you were either born with or developed due to trauma should be your greatest shame. Instead, we should shift the way we talk about mental health to one that is supportive to people with a diagnosis and inspires others to not feel shame seeking treatment. The easiest way to do this is to choose our words carefully and compassionately — and avoid phrases that subliminally perpetuate outdated attitudes about mental health.