Speak Out Against Misuse of Mental Health Terms


by Rianne Annis
Shield Staff

  • "My ex is a psycho."
  • "Stop acting OCD."
  • "The weather is  bipolar today." 

These phrases and others like them are tossed around lightly and inappropriately these days, and their misuse contribute to the negative stigma surrounding mental health.

"The words have become part of our culture, and are used without understanding of their effect on others," said Teri Butcher, Rochester College student life specialist.

End The Stigma

Mental health advocates are pushing the idea of "fighting" or "ending the stigma" that is associated with mental health.

The psychiatric terms we choose in our everyday conversation have a significant impact on the stigma toward mental health and on the individuals who suffer from mental health disorders.,

"There is not enough awareness of mental disorders or the effects of this type of language," said Dr. Jessica Matchynski, assistant professor of psychology. "Although most people (and I would bet all of us) know someone with a mental disorder, current stigmas often prevent us from talking about it." 

Lazy Language

This misuse of psychiatric terms stems from ambiguity, being vague, laziness in language, and efforts to emphasize hyperbole. Dr. Robyn Siegel-Hinson, associate professor of psychology, said, "These words insult, stigmatize and label others while simultaneously allowing those using such statements to feel superior to groups of other people."

Exhibiting a trait associated with a mental health illness has been deemed synonymous with having the illness itself. Although often used as hyperbole to describe simplistic behaviors, misusing psychiatric terms is harmful and aids in prolonging mental health stigma.  

"To someone who has bipolar, like myself, it makes me then feel like I am worse off than someone who doesn’t have bipolar," said freshman Ciana Proctor.

Matchynski said, "For an individual struggling to accept a diagnosed mental disorder, hearing others use psychiatric terms improperly or lightheartedly can mitigate the significance of the disorder and its meaning. Some individuals view talking about having a mental health disorder as a mere tool to garner attention. The lack of both acceptance and seriousness when discussing mental health disorders hinders individuals from being more open about their disorder, and makes it more difficult to find others who are supportive.

"This type of language minimizes the suffering of those with mental disorders. It is also likely to make it more difficult for someone to be open about his or her disorder or lead to feelings of shame."

Negative Associations

Words like "schizophrenia" and "Attention Deficit Disorder" are nothing more than descriptions given by doctors, but we've added negative connotations to them.

"People may be afraid of being labeled 'crazy' and lose the respect of their friends or family," said senior Hannah Kwiecinski.

The negative association alone discourages those who need help, from seeking it. Singer Britney Spears' fall from grace in 2007 is a great reflection of how we have treated concerns of mental health. "Crazy" and "psychotic" are a couple of terms that have been used to describe her state that year. It is our reaction towards those in need that have hindered our progress in helping individuals find the assistance they need.

"People just throw these phrases and disorders around without a thought about how they affect the people who suffer from them," said senior Codie Myers.

Mental Health stigma continues to be barrier to individuals who need help. With a shift away from misusing psychiatric terms, we will be one step closer to helping.

Speak Up

What can be done to combat this type of speech in the future? Matchynski phrased it best: "Encourage academic groups to hold mental health awareness activities, and as with many things, one person at a time. If you hear someone using a mental disorder lightly or to insult someone, speak up!"