Why we need to stop using mental disorders as adjectives

An image I came across on Tumblr.

Have you noticed that a while ago we started changing the way we speak? For instance, someone who is “socially awkward” instantly becomes someone with social anxiety. Having trouble sleeping, becomes having insomnia. Being sad about life, instantly turns into being depressed, or being nervous, into suffering from anxiety. And this is basically how terms that in the past were restricted to the “medical field” have become popular terms we use on a daily basis. I know language is dynamic, but as it is a powerful weapon, we might as well reflect on the consequences of such phenomenon.

A heavy label to carry on

First off, I want to address the main problem in such mental health conditions becoming adjectives. Because guess what? They are not. When we use them as adjectives we are defining the person we refer to. That is, we are putting a label on them which might seem inoffensive, but no label is neutral. Such labels are much heavier than one might think because they refer to negative/undesirable attributes, that is, they have a negative connotation, and thus carry a social stigma.

Someone might have been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, but when you call someone bipolar (whether actually diagnosed or not), you are actually defining their personal features rather than referring to a psychological state. You are also putting someone into a category and expect them to fit into a stereotyped idea of such disorder. But guess what? Disorders come in many shapes and forms and everyone has their own way of experiencing their mental life. Furthermore, by doing this you are assuming that the psychiatric label is permanent.

Consequences of misuse

So, what are the real consequences of adding such constructs into our daily language? Well, first of all, the way we are using them differs from their actual meaning. So we are shaping them to meet our preconceived ideas. This will result in two things: 1. Pathologization of normal emotional states, and 2. Loss of relevance of the actual meaning.

Let’s just use an example to briefly illustrate such concepts (or else I could just go on and on about this topic):

  1. Being sad does not make you depressed, for example. Being sad is just a part the range of human emotions and it is normal. That’s it. You are probably going to be okay as it is a temporary state.
  2. If we keep misusing psychological terms, they will eventually lose their precise meaning (which we need for diagnosing purposes). We are making up homogeneous and stereotyped ideas of mental conditions through their idealization when in reality they come in very different shapes and forms (that is, manifestations). For instance, I bet you and your neighbor would give me a similar definition of the term “depression”, because there’s a standard popularized idea behind it.

A side consequence of using mental disorders as adjectives is the trivialization of such which ultimately undermines the struggle and the impact it has on a person’s life, as language also affects the image we build of ourselves.

The point is: people are using such popularized constructs and ideas and are going even further, because they are turning them into something cute and cool. But, what might happen then? Well, people who may actually have depression might think that they do not have it because how they feel does not fit into the popular cute description. That’s mainly why Tumblr posts such as “Anxiety is not…. It actually is…” make no sense, because people may experiment it in different ways and still fit into the same diagnose. That’s why we need mental health professionals to diagnose such conditions, because such posts might result in diluted diagnose parameters in the end.

Some people even claim the popularization of psychological terms might result in overdiagnosis. My concerns, however, are a little more focused toward the culture we are building, especially one that is idealizing mental illness instead of giving visibility to the real struggle behind them. Language is a powerful tool as it helps us shape the idea of the world we live in. Language changes our perception, so let’s use it the right way.

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