Reserve mental health terminology for professionals and patients

September 7, 2018

Even though most people recognize mental health as a serious issue, some do not always acknowledge that in their everyday language.

Part of treating mentally ill people with respect is using psychology terms judiciously and reasonably. If these terms—like bipolar or schizophrenic—are used out of context, an individual might come off as uninformed or inconsiderate.

I frequently hear people improperly using diagnostic vocabulary and it really bothers me. Family members have described political polls as “schizophrenic,” while friends called the weather “so bipolar.” I have even overheard a dog being called “so bipolar.”

After asking what a “schizophrenic political polls” was, I got this answer: polls that fluctuate wildly and unexpectedly. According to that family member, schizophrenic is a common descriptor for trends; however schizophrenic also describes people with a severe psychological condition.

People with schizophrenia experience debilitating symptoms including delusions and hallucinations. Schizophrenia is incurable. While the illness can be managed, patients cannot always afford the expenses and many schizophrenic people end up homeless.

With bipolar disorder, some people casually use the word to describe things that change quickly. The weather that my friend called bipolar moved from sunny to rainy in a matter of minutes. As for the bipolar dog, I can only assume that this dog had somewhat conflicting personality traits. No matter how you interpret it, weather and dogs do not fit the true definition of bipolar disorder because have not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Individuals who live with bipolar disorder primarily live in stages of depression or mania. Many people simplify these two stages down to sadness or happiness—however bipolar disorder is more complex. Depression often includes loss of interest in activities, loss of energy and suicidal ideation.

In contrast, manic symptoms include racing thoughts, decreased need for sleep, impulsivity, irritability and grandiose beliefs. Both stages are dangerous in their own right and cause severe issues for both people with the condition and their loved ones.

Using the word bipolar to describe anything other than a person with a bipolar disorder diagnosis is insensitive to those struggling with a serious condition.

Another way people wrongly use mental health words is with fictional characters. Unless a character or its creator says the character has a certain mental health condition, viewers often self-diagnosis these characters with disorders for their own entertainment or analysis attempt.

My AP Literature class during senior year of high school was full of people who supposedly wanted to be psychiatrists, yet did not understand the illnesses they were ascribing to pessimistic, old short stories. Nobody asked questions involving mental health, but these students responded by almost freely giving out diagnoses.

The Goldwater rule, a name for a section of the American Psychiatric Association’s “Principles of Medical Ethics” stating how it is unethical for psychiatrists to professionally address public figures, serves as a good model for figuring out when to use diagnostic vocabulary.

Words might seem like a small problem, but when there is an offensive history behind them, it is essential to navigate mindfully. Many people accept that racial and ableist slurs are awful and should only be used in the context of reclaiming because they are insulting and wrongfully justify violent histories; however sometimes words that are not slurs must be avoided, too.

Mentally ill people have been mistreated for a long time. Throughout history, these individuals were placed in destructive, unhelpful asylums and are often victims of police brutality. Since psychological disorders are so dangerous, treating mentally ill people respectfully should be a common goal, and definitely one that is not hard to achieve. Using mental health words properly does not take much effort. By reserving these parts of our vocabulary for specific purposes, we avoid trivializing people’s problems and sounding ignorant.

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