I’m sure everyone reading this will have heard terms such as “I’m a little bit OCD about that”, “I’m so depressed” and “She’s completely mental” thrown around in everyday language. We’re all guilty of it, but probably don’t realise the effect this type of language is having on the way mental health is viewed in society. A lot of people reading this will think it’s all a case of political correctness gone wrong, however the use of these words and phrases actually changes the way in which we view people with mental illnesses. By colloquialising mental health terms such as “depression” and “OCD”, we’re reducing the perceived severity of these disorders, helping to contribute to the ongoing stigma towards mental illness.
As someone who has (and does) suffer with both OCD and depression, I’m using these as examples here, however there are plenty of other phrases used incorrectly in everyday language. The acronym OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; a very real and debilitating mental illness that affects 1-2% of the population. I have heard many examples (even from Psychology lecturers and mental health professionals) of people using the phrase in reference to something they like to be ‘just right’, for example wanting their bed to be made in a particular way or feeling the urge to turn a plug socket off when it hasn’t got anything in it. This, although slightly annoying, is NOT OCD. Those of us with OCD would love to spend a day with things that simply annoy us.
To provide an example of just how debilitating OCD can be, it would take me at least half an hour just to get dressed in the morning when I was 9. I’d have to pick up and put down every item of clothing a certain number of times – and then repeat this – until my unconscious brain told me it was okay to put it on. This, teamed with knowing your mum was watching you with tears in her eyes through the crack of your door because she couldn’t do anything about it, is the true reality of OCD. And I know there are many other people with the disorder who have been in even worse states. It’s taken me years of therapy and supportive friends and family to get to a point where my OCD symptoms are pretty much hidden, so when someone uses a throw away comment about being “a bit OCD” you can understand my frustration. You can’t be “a bit” OCD. So, perhaps next time you want to use the phrase, use something different such as “I’m a bit funny about that” or “I like that to be just right”.
As for depression, this phrase has even more of a stigmatised burden than OCD. OCD is used in a more jovial way and, as a person who suffers from it, I am far less offended by its use than if someone says “I’m so depressed today”. For some reason depression has a meaning in our society which places its sufferers as lower than the rest of the population. Those who suffer with depression are either suspected of faking it, are just a bit sad or could simply “pull themselves together” if they tried a bit harder (another phrase which really, really pisses me off). Those diagnosed with depression are at a point in their lives where they feel there is no way forward. The illness often comes with ideas of suicide and feelings of utter hopelessness. Having had two pretty nasty episodes of depression, I can vouch for the fact that this is one of the worst mental illnesses you could ever be diagnosed with. Getting out of bed in the morning is such a struggle that sometimes it just doesn’t happen. And no, you cannot pull yourself together. There are people in the world that are on constant medication just so they can make a cup of tea in the mornings. Depression is no joke and not a phrase that should be thrown around in everyday conversation. This act merely adds to the ‘dumbing down’ of depression and stigmatises its sufferers even further.
Mental illness stigma in our society isn’t going away any time soon, but we have made some huge developments towards its extinction. Reducing the derogatory use of mental health terms in everyday language is something I believe can really help towards this movement and also support sufferers in feeling comfortable talking about their illnesses rather than hiding away due to stigma. So next time you automatically want to use phrases such as “I’m so OCD about that” or “I’m so depressed today”, just thinking about the alternatives you can use and being aware of your language can help the cause. Thank you!
Melissa Kirwan is a full-time postgraduate student currently studying for a MSc in Clinical Psychology and Mental Health.