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Stop Using Psychological Terms Incorrectly

Last year, when simply describing a not-so-great week I was having I dropped the “d” bomb: depressed. Even though housing week, a bad test grade, and the Eagles losing in yet another sporting event might have had me temporarily down, it didn't mean I was depressed. Knowing this full well, I said it like I had dozens of times before. But this time a friend called me on it, kindly asking me not to use that word.

It’s not the first or last time someone has asked me to refrain from using a particular word or rather suggested I use another term. Depression, rape, panic attack, and retard—to name a few—are words with serious meanings that society has turned into comfy expressions to throw around in everyday conversation. These misplaced uses take away the meaning from those who suffer from said conditions and circumstances. Hank Green recently posted a video to YouTube that highlighted the danger of using four particular psychological conditions as casual character descriptors. In doing so he pointed out a glaring hole in humanity: we are insensitive toward others in many ways, including our word choice.  

Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and psychopathology. Most of us have gotten the quick definition of these conditions in introductory psychology classes or seen them portrayed in movies or television. We have the gist of it. Therefore when the weather changes like that character on that TV show who suffers from bipolar disorder it means the weather is bipolar, right? Wrong.

“Mental health professionals point out that using diagnostic terms as misplaced metaphors…ultimately minimizes the serious conditions and the people who have them,” Green states in his video. He goes on to describe that an actual psychological disorder is one that is debilitating to the person suffering from it. They interfere with a person’s ability to function on a day to day basis and often bring distress to those who care for the person suffering. Belittling this severe a concept is selfish.

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Photo courtesy of Tumblr

We don’t understand others nearly as well as we think we do. There are bucket loads of psychological concepts to prove this fact, including the fundamental attribution error and false consensus effect. Our universes are, for the most part, too crowded by ourselves to make room for anyone else. Not to say we don’t care about one another, just that our sensitivity toward others is often based a lot on what we ourselves are or aren’t sensitive to. Since I don’t have depression I didn’t think to watch myself before I said it.

Though the phrase “you know my name, not my story” is mostly used with a side of sarcasm, it still holds true. Most people don’t announce their baggage to others until they are comfortable. Meaning that if they suffer from OCD, have a relative who is crippled by bipolar disorder, or are simply uncomfortable with the use of the word psychopath they may not want to announce their discomfort with one’s causal usage of the word.

We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to tell us not to appropriate psychological conditions. There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, odds are we can find a word other than “psychopath” to describe our ex.

As we learned when we were younger though, the pursuit of perfection is a fruitless venture considering the desired result is unachievable. There are quite literally billions of people on this planet and there is no way they will all become much more aware, educated, and sensitive about mental disorders any time soon—especially when movements against political correctness are becoming the norm.

Figureheads like Donald Trump are receiving immense attention from the press for their lack of regard for the feelings of others. Though it may not be positively received by the media, it’s obvious that people relate with this political incorrectness that he displays, as he currently leads the Republican race for the presidential nomination.

Freedom of speech is in the United States Constitution, but at what cost? We need a freedom of speech to give us the liberty to speak our minds and not be censored by the government. This freedom seems tainted in my mind when it makes others feel lesser by using race, circumstance, and mental health to degrade those around us. To me—and I doubt I am alone in this—that is not what America is all about.

If my mother said it once, she said it one thousand times: “Think before you speak.” But when repeated so often phrases lose their meaning—including important conditions used incorrectly to define people.

Perhaps we all need to consider our audience. At home amongst our family we can say what we will, letting our politically incorrect and often insensitive side hang out. I know I do. Out in the real world though we should know what we are talking about. Schizophrenia is the world’s most stigmatized and misunderstood mental disorder and yet, according to Green’s video, 28% of the references to said disease are casual metaphors. Using it incorrectly is not only painful for those affected by a disorder, but also makes users look uninformed.

If sensitivity to others isn’t at the top of our priorities list, let’s at least make the effort to come off as intelligent people and pick up a thesaurus next time we want to call someone bipolar.

Ohio on the map, Boston in my heart. Just a shockingly pale girl who is emotionally overinvolved in sports, hummus, and sitcoms.