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  • Ava Cargan

Using Mental Health As Adjectives and Why It Needs to Stop

Many of us are guilty of using phrases such as “the weather is so bipolar today,” “I am so OCD,” or “I literally had a panic attack.” The more that people treat mental health illnesses and disorders as adjectives, the more people begin to associate them with the wrong behaviors, making it harder to break stigmas about mental health. Integrating mental illnesses into everyday languages dilutes the seriousness of mental health issues, and can cause people to overlook the severity of experiencing symptoms of mental illnesses and disorders. Using mental health-related terms as adjectives means mocking disabilities, perpetuating stereotypes, and undermining someone's struggle with mental health. Every time that mental health is used as an adjective it contributes to the stigma, but also has several other effects too that we need to talk about.

Using a diagnosis as an adjective is insensitive, triggering, and discouraging for people receiving treatment or recovering from mental illness. Many people are afraid to come forward with mental health struggles due to the large stigma around mental health. The last thing we want is for someone with a mental illness to feel as if we don’t care about them, but when we use their illness as a figure of speech we inadvertently give it a negative connotation. Expressions including mental health as an adjective diminishes the reality of mental illness. A statement such as, “I literally had a panic attack”, unless you actually experienced a panic attack, it fabricates your stress level. Panic disorder, the cause of panic attacks, is extremely distressing. A panic attack can include symptoms such as, racing heart, difficulty breathing, chest pain, trembling, chills, sweating, and more. The pain of these symptoms is reduced when “panic attack” gets thrown into a regular, daily conversation. 

Another example is depression, a very severe, and debilitating mental illness. Blurting out a statement such as, “I have to get up early tomorrow, I am so depressed”, removes the cruelty of the symptoms of depression. In this context, depression becomes a more light hearted word. Think about this important question before you use a statement similar to the example: do you think that in this situation you are experiencing the symptoms as someone struggling with depression? When bipolar disorder, a manic-depressive disorder, gets minimized to be associated with indecisiveness, or rapid weather changes, the debilitating mental illness becomes a diluted diagnosis, and more misconceptions about the diagnosis grow. 

Using mental health as adjectives lessens their severity, but why else is this important? 

There are countless issues with using mental health as adjectives, in addition to what has been mentioned, as it categorizes real illnesses into good and bad categories. Think of someone who likes to have neat notes, or a clean room, being referred to as “OCD” (obsessive compulsive disorder). If they aren’t actually experiencing symptoms of OCD, within this context, “being OCD '' is seen as a positive trait, rather than what it actually is. The medical diagnosis means having repeated and unwanted compulsions, intrusive thoughts, and urges that cause severe distress. There is no such thing as a positive mental illness, but using a term such as OCD in the context of someone who likes being clean, or referring to something negative as bipolar, causes these mental disorders to be categorized as good or bad. 

Accidents happen when speaking all the time, but the huge problem is how the use of mental health as adjectives has become normalized and comes up often in daily conversation. When hearing mental health diagnosis being used as adjectives, or catching yourself doing it, take the time to educate yourself and those around you. There are 171,476 words that are used in the English language, that means that there are a lot of other adjectives to choose from. Check in on your friends and be intentional about the language you use. 

If you are experiencing mental health issues please reach out for help: 

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (You are loved and your existence matters!) 

Hamilton College Counseling Office: 315-859-4340 (press option 2)

Other Educational Resources: 

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