Big Brain Energy: Mental illnesses aren’t adjectives 

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Mental illness words such as “anxiety” and “PTSD” shouldn’t be used casually—here’s why.  Photo by    M.T ElGassier    on    Unsplash   . Thumbnail photo by    Fernando @dearferdo    on    Unsplash   .

Mental illness words such as “anxiety” and “PTSD” shouldn’t be used casually—here’s why. Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash. Thumbnail photo by Fernando @dearferdo on Unsplash.

Imagine you are sitting in the dining hall with a friend and they comment on your outfit and how it does not fully match properly. “That outfit is giving me so much anxiety,” they say mindlessly. Imagine you are cleaning your room with your mom, and she feels the need to color-code your closet because she likes it better that way. “I am so OCD about closet organization,” she says mindlessly. Imagine you have just taken your organic chemistry exam, and while walking out, your friend says to you, “That exam has literally given me PTSD.”  

Researchers and psychologists alike have long discussed why people constantly misuse these terms, which represent real and harrowing mental illnesses, as though they are personality quirks or slight inconveniences. As Nina Rifkind, LCSW mentions in her article on Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “The answer, in part, can be a lack of understanding and sometimes fear. Both are reflected in the way we routinely belittle mental health, as part of our daily lexicon.”

For one, anxiety can cause all sorts of cognitive and emotional distortions, but also physical ones, too. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for instance, is an uncomfortable condition that affects the large intestine and causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, swelling and gas. The condition is thought to be exacerbated by stress and anxiety, according to HeathLine. The same principle goes for GERD, which causes excess stomach acid to back up into the esophagus, causing damage to the tissues in the organ over time if left untreated. So not only is anxiety uncomfortable in the emotional sense, but it can affect the body as well.  

Those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), on the other hand, are tormented by obsessions (distressing thoughts, images and urges) and compulsions, which are acts they perform either mentally or outwardly to reduce the stress associated with the obsession. You might like your room super tidy and neat, but it does not necessarily mean you spend hours a day worrying about your house catching on fire if you don’t clean it constantly. Therein lies the fundamental difference between a quirk or preference and an identifiable psychiatric disorder. 

Those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience a stressor, whether it be direct exposure to trauma, witnessing the trauma, learning that a loved one was involved in the trauma indirect exposure to the direct effects of the trauma, and then have intrusion symptoms, such as nightmares and flashbacks, negative alterations in mood and cognition and alterations in arousal among others for over a month. There is a difference between a negative association you have to a difficult test and raw, chronic trauma that is often disturbing and lasting.  

If you go back and read the three hypotheticals introduced in the beginning of this article, you will likely realize that none of the individuals have the condition they carelessly mention. Their comments represent a gross misunderstanding of mental illness, even in today’s world where awareness for mental health is growing stronger by the minute with the introduction of new research and social media.  

The problem exists for those who have a high profile as well. Khloe Kardashian, for instance, has come under fire in recent years for her home organization series she has dubbed, “Khlo-C-D,” a play on OCD, which helps her readers learn easy ways to save space and better organize products in your home. The only issue is, there is no indication of severe obsessions and compulsions in Kardashian’s case.  

In 2017, Refinery29 writer Cory Stieg said even though there is no clear indication of whether Kardashian actually suffers from the disorder, she must be wary about how she throws the terminology around and paints it as a blessing.  

“We don’t know whether or not she’s truly been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and to assume either way would be wrong, but OCD doesn’t mean ‘having great organizational skills.’ It can be a devastating disorder that ruins people’s lives,” Stieg said.  

Andrew McCulloch, former chief executive of the United Kingdom’s Mental Health Foundation, told BBC News in 2011 the misuse of mental health terminology can further fuel misunderstandings and stigmas surrounding these disorders.  

“The upside is that we have moved on from a fear of mentioning these things at all, but it is a tiny step forward,” McCulloch said. “The trouble is these terms all come to mean the same thing. Then they become as unpleasant as describing someone with schizophrenia as a lunatic.” 

Dr. Zsofia Demjen, a linguist who studies language, mind and health, told Vice News in 2016 that overusing words associated with mental illness can often make diagnostic criteria more difficult to decipher and distinguish. Words that once had a loose association are now being used interchangeably. Educating people on how to be smarter with their words can be effective in destigmatizing these conditions as well.  

“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?” Demjen said. “How can people differentiate the much more complex, much more intense thing they have from this thing everyone always claims ownership of?”  


Taylor Harton is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at taylor.harton@uconn.edu.

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