Why We Need to Stop Casually Throwing Around Words Like 'Bipolar' or 'OCD'
It's easy to say you're "having a panic attack" when you're just a bit stressed, but we should watch to make sure that the meaning of words that refer to serious mental health conditions isn't diluted.
Illustration by Ella Strickland de Souza
If you say kangaroo enough times, it stops being a furry animal with a pouch and becomes a sound. The ang disconnects from the gar, and the shapes your mouth makes are foreign territory. It starts to feel impossible that you've ever said kangaroo in your life before this point. Semantic satiation is the study of repetition—the psychological phenomenon in which the echoing of a word causes it to lose all meaning. There are plenty of curious studies that prove the power of the word or the loss of that power. Language is weird and slippery, but its capability never to be underestimated.
I can't remember the first time someone said it in front of me. But it happens a lot and always in the same tone: "I'm having a total panic attack about it" or "X and Y happened and I went mental, I had an actual panic attack." To take that at face value, it's quite an odd thing to claim a medical episode when you're describing a mild to moderately stressful everyday incident. Why would you say you're experiencing overwhelming and disabling anxiety, feeling like you're being choked to death or having a heart attack, wanting to collapse under the desk, when you're not? If I overhear this in public, I scowl and want to say, "Really? Did you really find yourself paralyzed in a cubicle wondering whether this will be the time you're going to die, puke, or shit yourself—maybe all three?"
If I see it online, where it often manifests, I want to quote the tweet and show the mutation of language for what it is. This is just one example relevant to me and my own mental health, but it's undeniably part of a wider discourse we've carried over into 2016. You'll be familiar with it. It's "I'm so OCD," "he's completely bipolar," and "so depressed right now."
Why has this slipped into speech in the first place? It's part of our growing language of catastrophe. Whether it's the media, ads, or public service announcements, everyone is demanding our attention, and in order to grasp it, the sell becomes exaggerated. In Britain, we've absorbed America's insistence on hyperbole. We totally love or hate something and nothing in between. In case someone doesn't know you're being sincere, repeat "genuinely," "seriously," or "literally," and that'll work. The stakes rise on social media between average young person to person: We'll go kill ourselves, we hate our lives, and we say fuck "everything." Of course, brands and businesses regurgitate our drama and Mondays are a cause for faux-depression memes that insist we're all in this together, so we stay in and watch their shows and deserve to eat our dark feelings with their junk. We're a generation of oversharers, and why else are emotions there but to be shared?
There's nothing inherently wrong in it. But when people say they're having a panic attack when they're just stressed, or "OCD" because they like cleaning, it points to either a total disconnect between language and meaning or a troubling symptom of self-diagnosis culture. Or, more worryingly, both. Naturally, anyone should be able to describe his or her own feelings and moods on his or her own terms. But at what cost and to whom?
Dr. Zsofia Demjen is a linguist who studies the intersections of language, mind, and health. She explained why this trend matters. "Using bipolar or schizo or essentially technical words to describe mundane or everyday experiences means the original technical meaning of the term becomes diluted and it becomes more strongly associated with these simpler or more fleeting experiences. It normalizes illness. The potential problem is that 'I'm depressed' now means 'I'm sad.' Then how does someone who actually has depression describe his or her illness or how he or she feels? How can people differentiate the much more complex, much more intense thing they have from this thing everyone always claims ownership of?"
David Hartery, 25, has bipolar disorder, and it pisses him off when bipolar is wrongly used. "It's always to do with changeability or indecision, or even if they are talking about mood swings, it's always making light of it. Bipolar's quite a hard thing to live with so I think it's annoying and spreads a false idea of what bipolar is, which is harmful." Doug Thompson, who has OCD, finds this adoption of language similarly reductive. "Saying something or someone has OCD is on a level with 'you're being silly' for me. I guess I associate it with being childish. And I'm sat silently thinking, You don't know, whenever anyone uses it to effectively say he or she is just a neat freak."
Ableist language like this matters because when people apply an illness to themselves, they don't have to deal with it daily.
There's something to be said for how it makes sufferers feel; they're going through something stigmatized and often debilitating, while people are essentially being collectively flippant about it. Emily Reynolds is working on a book about mental health. Even she struggles when people misuse the term. "I know people don't mean to do it and it's thoughtlessness rather than spite, but it just wounds me a little bit every time and makes me feel I can't trust that person," she explained. "I'm happy to call out family or friends, but sometimes, at work, for example, you just can't. [When] people throw around 'I feel so manic' or 'he's so bipolar,' I just feel awkward about my diagnosis. Even with my level of willingness to talk about it, I feel small and awkward."
The issue goes deeper than individual feelings. "If we come to understand mental illness as something everybody has on a weekly basis, it facilitates the attitude of 'just snap out of it,'" says Dr. Demjen. "That in turn actually facilitates stigma because then if someone does have OCD, say, in the clinical sense—see, even I'm having to specify clinical here because already we have this dilution in language—his or her symptoms end up not being taken as seriously as they should be."
Dr. Demjen talks about something else called negative evaluation, which happens when we refer to other people being bipolar or OCD. "When people say that, they don't mean the person is clinically ill. They mean their behavior isn't seen as positive. And again, if you take the idea that words acquire and change meaning, then bipolar or OCD acquires this negative association. Then people who are diagnosed with one of these illnesses perceive it as a negative evaluation and judgement of themselves rather than a neutral diagnosis. This facilitates the stigma that they feel and also the potential stigma that others might impose on them because they also have the same associations. If someone goes to their employer and tells them, 'I'm depressed,' the employer has those associations as well." It's a vicious cycle.
You'd never use a physical illness like cancer as a negative throwaway term to mean lazy or weak. But because mental illness is invisible to most, it enables this slip of language to happen.
If you exaggerate this concept, it begins to look ridiculous. You'd never use a physical illness like cancer as a negative throwaway term to mean lazy or weak. However, because mental illness is invisible to most, it enables this slip of language to happen. It's so easy to conflate anything with mental health—with feelings and emotions—because those are also "in your head." Of all these terms, depression has been casually used the longest. To say "depressed" is to quite literally mean sad, gloomy, or dejected, and as a result, we're used to naturally hearing that in its own context. That's where language fails with its multiple meanings.
Why have these other terms started to get used, though? Dr. Demjen suggests it's in part to do with disorders being more in the public domain now. "It's positive we're talking about mental health in the true sense, the illness itself, as it reduces stigma." That's definitely something you can notice online—increasingly, younger people are casually tweeting about a day they took off of work for mental health, making jokes at the expense of their illness. These are positive developments. However, as Dr. Demjen points out, that leads to the terms being more in people's awareness and contributes to the casual use.
Thankfully, language use can change within weeks, even days. "Similar trends in the past have been 'gay' being used as a derogatory term, which is frowned upon and there's an awareness that that's no longer OK to do." It wasn't that long ago that the media used "psycho" in headlines to interchangeably refer to anyone criminal or mentally ill. You'd be pushed to find a publication daring to do that now.
Kate Nightingale from Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, says it's down to both individuals and larger communities to consider their words. "Having a mental health problem is hard enough—hearing it trivialized makes it unnecessarily harder. You probably don't mean to stigmatize or hurt someone with a mental health problem—so we'd encourage everyone to think twice about the possible impact of using mental health language in such a casual way." When you speak, say what you mean.
It's not about taking over language and deciding who can say what. It's about having a word to express to people who don't understand what is affecting us. Many find being diagnosed and given a term for their illness empowering; they can go online and research their illness, the science, and the facts. They can hang onto that word when they're having a bad patch. Within the mental health community, the word has immense power. Satiating these words will eventually make them meaningless to everyone.
Follow Hannah Ewens on Twitter.
Illustration by Ella Strickland de Souza.
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- Dr. Zsofia Demjen