It happens all the time — someone feels anxious, and they describe the feeling as having a panic attack. Maybe they’re having difficulty concentrating and they say, “I’m so ADHD.” In most cases, people aren’t being malicious: they’re simply trying to express their feelings. Even so, casually using words related to mental health can have a negative impact on people who are truly struggling with a diagnosed or undiagnosed condition.
When it comes to mental health, words matter. In this post, we’re going to explore the importance of accurate language and identify better alternatives to common terms.
Casual Use of Mental Health Terms: Common Examples
Casual mental health language is baked into the American vernacular, and offhand usage is so common that you might not even realize you’re doing it. Here are some examples:
- OCD: This is one of the most frequently misused mental health terms — it describes any type of fastidious, meticulous, cleanliness-focused or repetitive behavior.
- ADHD: This term relates the experience of feeling scattered, forgetful or unable to focus. It’s also a common self-diagnosis. This is partially because as researchers and healthcare providers have gained a greater understanding of the condition, it has become a more common diagnosis. Between 2003 and 2011, diagnoses in children rose by 42%.
- Mentally unstable/crazy/insane: In many cases, these words have a negative, derogatory connotation.
- Autism: With the rise of TikTok, autism has become part of an open community dialogue. However, people are now using the term inaccurately to describe stress responses such as verbal tics and social anxiety.
- Trauma: It’s become common to use the term “trauma” for things that are uncomfortable but not truly traumatic. This misuse can detract from the effects of real trauma and leave people feeling helpless, incapable of coping with even the slightest setback.
- Imposter syndrome: Imposter syndrome isn’t technically a diagnosed condition, but it refers to the repeated inability to feel competent and successful. However, many people use the term for isolated incidents of uncertainty or self-doubt.
- Anxiety: It’s trendy to label every bout of nerves or mild anxious feeling as a full-blown anxiety disorder. However, diagnosed anxiety is considerably more serious and damaging.
- Schizophrenic: This term has fallen out of favor, but it’s still in use. People may use “schizo” as an insult when the reality is a devastating disease.
What Happens When We Use Mental Health Terms Casually?
When we use mental health terms casually, it detracts from the seriousness of the associated conditions. Take OCD — this term is often said flippantly, with a mild positive connotation. People might use it to describe their cleaning style or something they’re obsessed with, but the reality isn’t cute or quirky; people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder often struggle with intrusive thoughts and intense compulsions that affect every aspect of their lives.
As casual usage becomes trendy, people tend to use mental health language to describe behaviors that aren’t connected to the actual condition. This generates a desensitizing effect, and when a person who truly has a disorder tries to get help, they may be brushed aside or not taken seriously.
Sometimes, people diagnose themselves with conditions they don’t have (known as “self-diagnosis”). You might experience mild discomfort at an event and decide you have social anxiety. As you focus on this inaccurate label, you may engage in unhealthy avoidant behaviors that slow your personal growth.
In some cases, incorrectly using clinical terms can obscure a general understanding of real symptoms. If all you know about depression is that it makes it hard to get out of bed, you might miss other early warning signs. As a result, you’re more likely to experience escalating effects and years of unnecessary suffering before you seek help.
Offhand language can also be hurtful; it trivializes the experiences of people who manage mental health conditions. If someone claims to be having a mental breakdown — or worse, a “menty B” — when they’re feeling stressed, it makes light of the destruction and pain a true breakdown can bring.
In many cases, mental health terms are weaponized and lobbed as insults, turning real struggles into something to be reviled or mocked. As a result, a stigma develops around the illness itself. People who are dealing with the condition may feel ashamed or embarrassed, which makes it harder to seek treatment or be open about their personal challenges.
Alternatives to Words Related to Mental Health
If you want to avoid mental health terms, what language should you use instead? To start, it’s always a good idea not to use any health condition as an insult. Don’t make a disease part of a person’s identity; instead of referring to someone as “a schizophrenic,” you might say they are a person who has schizophrenia. People-first language avoids reducing a person to their conditions.
Trivializing mental health language can also have harmful effects, even when you’re using it in reference to yourself. Try to find more accurate words to describe yourself and others — it’s good for you and society at large. Here are some better alternatives to common mental health terms:
|Phrase to Avoid||
|I have anxiety.I feel nervous.||
I feel nervous
|That was insane.||
That was scary/exhilarating/unexpected.
|It’s my imposter syndrome.||
I’m feeling self-doubt.
|I’m so ADHD.||
I feel scattered/I’m having trouble focusing.
|He’s so bipolar.||
His mood swings are unpredictable.
|I’m really OCD about it.||
I like to stick to my routine.
|I’m depressed today.||
I feel sad/blue/emotional.
|That was so traumatic.||
That was scary/stressful/difficult.
|I’m so autistic.||
I struggle to find the right words and emotions.
Any time you’re discussing mental health, make sure to find another word for “mentally ill”. After all, mental illness describes a broad range of conditions. Instead, use specific words without a negative connotation. Don’t say, “He is mentally ill”; say, “He has an anxiety disorder.”
Getting Help for Mental Health
When you’re struggling, it can be triggering to hear people use words related to mental health in an offhand manner. At Restore Mental Health, our experienced team can help as we specialize in treating conditions that range from anxiety to bipolar disorder. Call us today to learn more about how we can help you take control of your mental health.