Speaking Sensitively: Rethinking How We Use Mental Health Terms

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment,” writes Andrew Solomon in “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” This profound observation captures the essence of mental health struggles, which are often far more complex than indicated by the casual […]

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment,” writes Andrew Solomon in “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” This profound observation captures the essence of mental health struggles, which are often far more complex than indicated by the casual use of terms like “depressed” or “OCD” in everyday language. When we use these terms lightly, we risk trivialising the intense experiences of those who live with these conditions daily. This article explores the consequences of such misuse. This highlights the importance of mindful and respectful language in our conversations about mental health.


In recent years, terms associated with mental health conditions such as “depressed,” “OCD,” and “bipolar” have become part of everyday parlance. While this may indicate a growing awareness of mental health, it often results in the trivialization of serious conditions. These terms are frequently used to describe temporary emotions or behaviours, which can undermine the true experiences of those living with these diagnoses. Misusing mental health terms can contribute to stigma, misinformation, and a lack of understanding about the severity of these conditions. It can make those who suffer from these conditions feel marginalised and misunderstood, hindering their ability to seek support and treatment. This article seeks to bring light on the correct use of these terms, encourage respectful and accurate language, and promote greater empathy and understanding for individuals with mental health conditions.

Understanding Mental Health Terms

Here are the definitions of Common Mental Health Terms:

  • 1. OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder): A disorder characterised by unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviours or mental acts (compulsions) performed to alleviate distress.

  • 2. Depression: A mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities. It can significantly impair daily functioning.

  • 3. Anxiety: A mental health condition involving excessive worry, nervousness, or fear that is disproportionate to the actual situation and can interfere with daily activities.

  • 4. Bipolar Disorder: A mental health condition marked by extreme mood swings, including emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). These mood swings can affect sleep, energy, behaviour, and the ability to think clearly.

  • 5. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder): A condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

  • 6. ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder): A disorder characterised by a persistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

  • 7. Schizophrenia: A severe mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behaviour that impairs daily functioning.

  • 8. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): A disorder characterised by unstable moods, behaviour, and relationships. Symptoms include emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, impulsivity, and impaired social relationships.

  • 9. Eating Disorders (e.g., Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa): Serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviours that negatively impact health, emotions, and the ability to function in important areas of life. They often involve an obsession with food, body weight, or shape. Additionally, the difference between the conditions is that a person with anorexia may use strategies to lose or avoid gaining weight. A person with bulimia typically uses strategies to “purge” the food from their system following episodes of binge eating.

To further clarify this let us look into the distinction between Clinical vs. Colloquial use of these terms. Mental health terms have specific, diagnostic criteria that must be met for a diagnosis to be made. For instance,

  • ~ OCD is not just about being neat or organised but involves severe, debilitating obsessions and compulsions.
  • ~ Depression is more than just feeling sad; it is a pervasive condition that affects one’s ability to function normally over a prolonged period.
  • ~ Anxiety disorders go beyond occasional worry or fear; they are persistent and can significantly disrupt a person’s life.
  • ~ Bipolar Disorder involves more than just mood swings; it includes periods of intense emotional states that can affect one’s ability to function.
  • ~ PTSD is more than just feeling stressed after a traumatic event; it involves ongoing, severe symptoms that can interfere with daily life.
  • ~ ADHD is not just about being inattentive or hyperactive occasionally; it involves chronic and impairing symptoms.
  • ~ Schizophrenia is not just about having unusual thoughts; it includes severe disruptions in thinking, perception, and behaviour.
  • ~ BPD involves more than just moodiness; it includes chronic instability in emotions, self-image, and interpersonal relationships.
  • ~ Eating Disorders are not about dieting or weight concerns; they involve severe disturbances in eating behaviours and related thoughts and emotions.

In everyday conversation, people often say they are “OCD” when they prefer things to be neat, “depressed” when they are momentarily sad, or “anxious” when they are slightly nervous. Such casual usage diminishes the harsh reality of these conditions, making it harder for those affected to be taken seriously and to seek the help they need.

Psychological and Social Dynamics

Many people use mental health terms casually because they lack a deep understanding of the conditions these terms describe. They may not realise the severity and complexity of disorders like OCD, depression, or anxiety. Mental health education is often inadequate, leading to misconceptions and trivialization of serious conditions.

The casual use of mental health terms has become normalised in everyday language. Phrases like “I’m so OCD” or “I’m feeling so depressed” are used to describe preferences or temporary feelings rather than clinical conditions. This normalisation makes it socially acceptable to misuse these terms without considering their impact. People sometimes use mental health terms to express empathy or solidarity, trying to relate to others by using familiar language. However, this can unintentionally minimise the experiences of those with actual diagnoses. For example, saying “I have a little OCD too” to someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder might be intended to show understanding but can instead come off as dismissive.

At the end of the day, we are after all humans and sometimes we experience complex emotional behaviour but are not always equipped with the right language or tools to articulate our experiences. As a result, people often use mental health terms as shorthand to convey their feelings quickly and precisely. Saying “I’m depressed” might seem easier than explaining a complex emotional state. This shortcut, however, can lead to the misuse of terms and the oversimplification of genuine mental health issues.

The Role of Media and Pop Culture:

  1. 1. Media Representation:
    • ~ Television shows, movies, and social media often portray mental health conditions inaccurately or in a sensationalised manner. Characters with mental health issues are frequently depicted in extreme ways that do not reflect real-life experiences.
    • ~ This misrepresentation can influence public perception, leading to stereotypes and casual use of mental health terminology.

  1. 2. Influence of Celebrities and Influencers:
    • ~ Celebrities and social media influencers have significant power in shaping language and trends. When they use mental health terms loosely, their followers may adopt the same habits.
    • ~ Statements like “I’m so bipolar today” or “I have OCD about my desk” from high-profile individuals can perpetuate casual misuse.

  1. 3. Humor and Entertainment:
    • ~ Mental health terms are sometimes used for comedic effect in media and pop culture. Jokes and memes about OCD or bipolar disorder can trivialise these serious conditions.
    • ~ While humour can be a coping mechanism, it can also contribute to misunderstandings and stigmatisation when it comes at the expense of accurate representation.

  1. 4. Lack of Consequences:
    • ~ There is often a lack of immediate consequences for misusing mental health terms in media and pop culture. Unlike other forms of insensitive language, which might provoke a backlash, the casual use of mental health terminology is often overlooked.
    • ~ This lack of accountability allows the misuse to persist and spread.

By understanding these psychological and social dynamics, we can begin to address the casual use of mental health terms and promote a more respectful and accurate dialogue about mental health.

Moving towards more Mindful Language

Using accurate language when discussing mental health shows respect for individuals who are living with these conditions. It acknowledges the complexity and seriousness of their experiences rather than trivialising them. Accurate language helps to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health by promoting understanding and empathy. When we speak about mental health with understanding and respect, we contribute to creating a more supportive and inclusive environment. Accurate language facilitates clear communication about mental health. It allows individuals to express their experiences more effectively and seek appropriate support and treatment.

Alternatives to Commonly Misused Terms:

Instead of “OCD”:

  • ~ Use phrases like “detail-oriented,” “particular,” or “methodical” to describe behaviours associated with being organised or having a preference for orderliness.

Instead of “Depressed”:

  • ~ Use terms like “feeling blue,” “melancholic,” or “in a slump” to describe temporary feelings of sadness or low mood.
  • ~ Use phrases like “experiencing a rough patch” or “going through a tough time” to describe temporary emotional difficulties.

Instead of “Anxious”:

  • ~ Use phrases like “feeling on edge,” “tense,” or “unsettled” to describe temporary feelings of nervousness or worry.
  • ~ Use terms like “jittery,” “apprehensive,” or “tense” to describe feelings of unease or nervous anticipation.

Instead of “Bipolar”:

  • ~ Use phrases like “mood swings,” “emotional fluctuations,” or “varied moods” to describe changes in mood. 
  • ~ Use terms like “emotionally unpredictable” or “alternating between highs and lows” to describe mood variability.

Instead of “Schizophrenic”:

  • ~ Use phrases like “having unusual experiences” or “experiencing altered perceptions” to describe behaviours or experiences without labelling them with a clinical diagnosis.
  • ~ Use terms like “having unconventional thoughts” or “experiencing reality differently” to describe perceptions or thoughts.

Instead of “ADHD”:

  • ~ Use phrases like “having trouble focusing,” “easily distracted,” or “having a short attention span” to describe difficulties with attention without referring to a clinical diagnosis.
  • ~ Use terms like “high energy,” “restless,” or “impulsive” to describe behaviours associated with hyperactivity.

Additionally, casually using terms like “autism” or “dyslexic” to describe niche interests or unusual behaviour on Instagram and other social media forums can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and trivialise the experiences of individuals with these conditions. Instead, individuals can strive to be more mindful and respectful by refraining from using clinical terms inaccurately and recognizing the significance of these conditions. They can choose alternative language that accurately reflects their intended meaning without appropriating or minimising the experiences of others. Additionally, promoting awareness and understanding of autism and dyslexia through thoughtful posts and captions can help foster a more inclusive and empathetic online community.


In conclusion, it’s essential to recognize the impact of using mental health terms lightly and colloquially. Trivialising conditions like OCD, depression, and anxiety through casual language contributes to stigma, misinformation, and the marginalisation of those living with mental health conditions. By understanding the differences between clinical and colloquial uses of these terms, we can foster a more respectful and informed dialogue about mental health.

It’s time for a change. Let’s commit to using mental health terminology mindfully and respectfully. Whether it’s in our conversations with friends, our posts on social media, or our interactions in the workplace, let’s choose our words carefully. Let’s educate ourselves and others about the true meaning and impact of mental health conditions. Let’s challenge misconceptions and stereotypes whenever we encounter them. And let’s promote empathy, understanding, and support for individuals living with mental health conditions.

Together, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society where everyone feels valued and understood. Let’s start by being mindful of the language we use and the impact it has on others.

Table format of Misused terms

Misused TermAlternatives
OCD– Detail-oriented
– Particular
– Methodical
Depressed– Feeling blue
– Melancholic
– In a slump
– Experiencing a rough patch
– Going through a tough time
Anxious– Feeling on edge
– Tense
– Unsettled
– Jittery
– Apprehensive
Bipolar– Mood swings
– Emotional fluctuations
– Varied moods
– Emotionally unpredictable
– Alternating between highs and lows
Schizophrenic– Having unusual experiences
– Experiencing altered perceptions
– Having unconventional thoughts
– Experiencing reality differently
ADHD– Having trouble focusing
– Easily distracted
– Having a short attention span
– High energy
– Restless
– Impulsive

Writer: Anita