Misuse of Mental Health Terms in Everyday Conversation

By Solomon Hammerly ’16

Photo: A "Mad Pride" movement hoping to reclaim terms such as, "mad" and "psycho" (Photo: Wikipedia)

A “Mad Pride” movement hoping to reclaim terms such as, “mad” and “psycho” (Photo: Wikipedia)

 The sayings, “That’s so OCD” and “What a schizo” often appear in conversations amongst students, and in most cases are less noticed than more crude terms that, while not intending to be derogatory, are still stated in a nonchalant manner. While the moral use of these terms can be debated, it is important that students recognize that they are in some cases hyperboles, or even completely inaccurate.

Terms like OCD, ADHD, and others often come up in conversations when used to refer to an action performed by a person. For example “That’s so OCD” is often used to refer to one’s organizational skills or when performing actions such as washing hands, or excessive arranging. Its use in this context appears more casual and not referring to a legitimate case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

In an article published by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Sarah Myers discussed living with OCD and how she overcame the disorder. “One of the first things I remember is trying to get as far away as possible from the two cottonwood trees in the backyard, terrified they would fall over and crush me. My parents were in the backyard and I couldn’t leave them, but no matter how many times they reassured me that the trees wouldn’t fall, I couldn’t stop begging them to come inside.”

While this is an extreme example of OCD, it provides a stark contrast to the terms use in normal conversations when it is used to describe somebody performing actions purely for the sake of “cleanliness.”

Another well known condition, schizophrenia, has recently become more acceptable in daily conversations than other mental illness terms. The definition of schizophrenia is often misunderstood as it is often recognized for its most common symptoms: hallucinations and hearing voices.

A 2003 report conducted on behalf of a  presidential commission on mental health found that 61 percent of Americans believe that people with schizophrenia could be dangerous. The report states that, “in reality, these individuals are rarely violent. If they are violent, the violence is usually tied to substance abuse.” NAMI conducted another survey which found that the most common misconception held by people that took the poll was that schizophrenia directly correlates with “split or multiple personalities.”

 

Similar to the misuse of the term “OCD,” schizophrenia is often used in social settings to describe a person acting paranoid or generally wild or unstable. Commonly abbreviated “schizo,” this has even been attached to inanimate things such as the fluctuation of the stock market. Large media outlets unfortunately do not help with this mental illness stigma, as shown in the International Monetary Fund’s September 2011 World Economic Outlook which characterized our global economy as “bipolar” and when reporter Robert Harris described Gordon Brown and Richard Nixon as having a form of “political Asperger’s syndrome.”

What were previously terms designated for disorders have shifted to simplistic metaphors. Yet with solidified definitions relating to real conditions, these terms are once again proving the point that one should have general knowledge of a word before they attempt to use it, or categorize it as a light and casual descriptor.