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Misusing Mental Health Terms

Misusing Mental Health Terms

In your everyday life, you may hear someone speak about being “so OCD” because they are meticulous about cleanliness, or maybe refer to an ex that they did not like as a “narcissist”. That is not to say that these terms are not real, but that they are being used in unhelpful ways that take away from the full scope of a condition. An old partner that was a bit too self absorbed is not a narcissist, even if it strained the relationship, and being annoyed when something is out of order does not imply OCD. Rather than using terms to accurately describe what someone may be experiencing through everyday life, people are more often turning to psychological terms or jargon that they do not fully understand to describe their thoughts in a way they feel is simpler to comprehend. It may be easier to say that you are feeling depressed that day, rather than explaining that something had happened that day to make you upset. This is best said by Dr. Frank Farely on NBC news, “These labels give a false simplicity to human behavior. Something very complex boils down to (a generic, psychiatric label),”.  The growing acceptance of these mental conditions, though typically a good development, has led to a misuse and misunderstanding of them that has come to distort their meanings, diminish others’ lived experiences, and lead people to dismiss what they may be experiencing. 

People have been using psychological terms incorrectly or in poor contexts for a long time now, and have even had a term created to describe the action. The incorrect use of psychological terms can be described as psychobabble; a word originally coined by Dean Rosen in 1975 meaning, “Talk or writing that employs the language and concepts of psychology and psychiatry in a trite, superficial, or confusing way” (Rosen). Psychobabble is the best way to describe how people are currently misusing these terms as they are misleading, confusing  and inaccurate to how they are meant to be used in a clinical context. Some of the most commonly misused and misunderstood words used in everyday language are: OCD, bipolar, depressed, and psycho. All of which have very different meanings than what they are used for in common language.

OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, is often used by people to describe their meticulous cleaning habits. Someone may say things such as ‘I’m so OCD’ after spending the day deep cleaning their home, or referring to someone else as such after seeing how they organize their belongings. In actuality, OCD refers to the overwhelming need to complete tasks in certain ways and fear or anxiety of consequences that may occur due to failing to complete them, and at times disturbing intrusive thoughts (Leistedt). This is a far cry from the typical usage of the term; using OCD as it currently is all but changes its entire meaning and makes it appear as though it is not as severe or distressing as it actually is. In this same light, bipolar is often used to describe typical mood swings in people. 

Bipolar disorder is really defined by bouts of manic highs “distinct period of abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood and abnormally and persistently increased activity or energy lasting at least one week,” (APA 124)  and crushing depressive lows that could last weeks at a time. The use of the word bipolar in this way not only trivializes the risk factors that come with the disorder, but also amplifies the perceived severity of common mood swings. As Dr. Maidenburg said “When people use (psychiatric labels) in daily language, I think it is intended to deliver some sort of emotional context,”. While mood swings may be confusing or annoying, that does not make them any less typical to experience, unlike bipolar disorder. In trying to use these terms to express themselves better, people end up exaggerating and misinterpreting their experiences.

A perfect example of exaggerating emotions comes up when people use the term depression to describe a bout of sadness. There is much more to depression than just a moment of sadness. It is defined by an ongoing depressive mood nearly every day, and a loss of interest with life or activities that were previously enjoyable to that person for over two weeks. (“15.7 Mood and Related Disorders – Psychology 2e”). In comparison, stating that you are feeling depressed for a day is extremely mild and makes depression seem as though it were an exaggeration of mild sadness that people feel from day to day. Ordinary sadness or upset does not lead to a longstanding loss of enjoyment of life, much like depression does not stop after whatever caused the initial sadness has passed. 

Listening to people use psychological jargon incorrectly in everyday language makes conditions seem like so much less than they actually are. It boils down a complex condition to common experiences that people may have issues articulating, so they use what appears to be the closest related term to their actual feelings. Unfortunately, that means taking words that very loosely describe what they’re feeling, stripping away anything else that grants them their meaning and diagnosis, and using it to possibly get across the idea that it had been an off day. It does not affect just those with the more commonly known conditions either. As people start to take away parts of what makes a disorder, it is easy to apply the same logic to others too. “ a parent might brush off a child’s diagnosed selective mutism as shyness, saying, “Oh, she’s just a shy child, and she’ll grow out of it,”” (“Psychobabble”).  In the same way that people could use depression to describe typical low moods, in this case, selective mutism is pushed off as nothing more than normal childhood shyness. This is likely because people view other conditions to be over exaggerated and thus not in need of being looked into further, even if the one afflicted is suffering from a condition that had been ignored. 

This could also go in the opposite direction and lead people to believe that they have conditions that they do not. This is due to the fact that as conditions are trivialized as they are currently being, the criteria for people to believe that they fit into these labels lowers as well. “A person who is shy and claims social anxiety disorder may receive medication they do not need,” (Christensen). People may misunderstand what they are feeling because of the way disorders have been misinterpreted and misunderstood by people in general. That is what leads to people really believing that genuine shyness is social anxiety, and things like common mood swings are signs of bipolar disorder. It goes beyond using the terms in a hyperbolic sense, and leads to people using them genuinely in the wrong context or for the wrong circumstances. This can lead to unnecessary stress over conditions someone might not have.

On the other end of this spectrum, it could lead to people avoiding getting mental health care altogether because of the stigmatization, misunderstanding, or misrepresentation of certain ailments. “Even worse, re-stigmatizing people through lazy labeling may scare some folks away from getting needed help,” (Leistedt). The public view of a disorder or condition could make someone feel as though they do not ‘fit’ the label, or become ashamed to admit that they are experiencing symptoms of something considered to be bad by the general public. People should not have to be ashamed of what they are experiencing, nor should they have to be worried that they do not ‘qualify’ to have a disorder. People avoiding getting healthcare due to this stigmatization is only harmful, and should be avoided. 

People may also start to believe that what mental health professionals are saying is made up or meaningless because of the way they hear terms being used in everyday language. “people use the term psychobabble pejoratively, either to espouse negative opinions about people who use such terms without true understanding of their definitions, or to speak negatively of the mental health profession. . . .“It’s just psychologists, making up terms.”” (Christensen). People aren’t believing mental health professionals due to a misunderstanding of what they are trying to explain, which is only exemplified by the way that the public generally portrays mental health conditions. This misunderstanding may lead to fear or reluctance to get needed help and ignoring signs of conditions that would otherwise be diagnosed and treated if they were to trust in mental health professionals. Unfortunately that cannot be done unless the stigmatization and misunderstanding of mental health is reduced. 

Even the mental health professionals that use these terms and language play a part in this issue. When speaking with patients or their families, mental health professionals may seem unclear or confusing with their language, which leads to people misunderstanding the terms or being scared to believe in them altogether. This does not mean that mental health professionals are completely to blame, just that there is room for improvement. It also does not mean that the language used needs to be completely changed, but there is a need for more clarification when discussing what these words mean for the person affected and even the people around them. If more people properly understood what these words meant, there would be much less confusion and stigmatization around them.

It could be argued that the growing use of these terms and acceptance of them may be a sign of less stigmatization and more empathy regarding them. In a way, this is true. More people are made aware of conditions and may even begin to look into them to better understand them. However that becomes irrelevant when the way that people are hearing about them is in a reductive manner and takes away from the severity of a condition or even full parts of what makes certain conditions. If these terms were being used properly and referred to as they should be, then the increased use of them would likely be of no issue, but that is not the case. As it is now, one should try to understand more about a condition that they are speaking about before trying to make any definitive statements about them. 

It’s no one person’s fault that these issues with the way psychological terms are now being used exist, however it is our collective responsibility to work towards changing the way we use this type of language. Without some sort of change, there will continue to be more misunderstanding and misrepresentation of mental health conditions. Such things can only be harmful to others, whether they have these conditions or not. Until people better understand these conditions and are better able to use them accurately it would be best not to use them as a descriptor at all, not because they are inherently bad, but to avoid perpetuating harmful representations of them.


Works Cited

Association, American Psychiatric. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013.

Christensen, Tricia. “What is Psychobabble?” Language Humanities, 6 October 2023, Accessed 20 November 2023.

“15.7 Mood and Related Disorders – Psychology 2e.” OpenStax, 22 April 2020, Accessed 14 November 2023.

Forgey, Burl. “Mental Health Terminology: Commonly Misused Terms.” Psychiatry Associates of Baton Rouge, 29 December 2017, Accessed 14 November 2023.

Hallenstein, Craig B. Ethical Problems With Psychological Jargon. American Psychological Association, 1978.

Leistedt, Samuel. “’She’s OCD!’ ‘He’s Schizo!’ How Misused Health Lingo Can Harm.” NBC News, 29 December 2014, Accessed 21 November 2023.

“Psychobabble.” GoodTherapy, 29 January 2016, Accessed 20 November 2023.

Rosen, Richard Dean. “Psychobabble Definition & Meaning.” YourDictionary, Accessed 13 November 2023.

“Why the language we use to describe mental health matters.” Mental Health Foundation, 2 May 2019, Accessed 25 November 2023.

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  • P

    penaFeb 2, 2024 at 5:35 pm

    I think it’s important to keep an eye on your mental help especially at high school age. The changes you go through throughout those for years can be very effective on your young mind. Learning more and more about these Mental health terms are important information to keep in your pocket in case you will ever need it, which you most likely will.

  • K

    KekoaJan 19, 2024 at 4:58 pm

    I agree with these facts in the article.

  • L

    Loni CoxDec 16, 2023 at 9:09 am

    Wow, what a awakening breakdown!

  • R

    River AitkenDec 16, 2023 at 3:57 am

    You are so awesome for talking about the misuse of mental health terms. It is horrible when people belittle mental illness because it’s seriously something that hurts people.

  • V

    Vanessa CaballeroDec 15, 2023 at 1:05 am

    I highly agree with this concept that many mental health terms are highly misused to some degree. There can be multiple people who use OCD incorrectly,because they don’t fully understand what OCD truly means. As well as, there are multiple people that will refuse to seek help because they don’t want to exaggerate the terms they are in, even if they do need help to get out of depression, etc. After all, its hard to know if you- yourself are depressed when you don’t have a clear mind. You described everything so well, and it is very well written, good job!

  • E

    Elissa-Kaitlyn GoldDec 14, 2023 at 1:08 am

    Thank you for this article. I agree the terms for mental illness are so often misused and it really builds a horrible stigma around them. If mental health diagnosis were not used incorrectly then people who actually need treatment might actually get the help they need. I also think bringing mental health to awareness is always a great thing and this article did just that.