The damaging affect of misusing mental health terms

It’s no secret that we live in a world that is currently dominated by political correctness. Some argue that being advised not to use words like “crazy” or “mad” as descriptors is going too far. But there is a difference between using generic words like ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ and using medical terms such as ‘psychotic’, ‘schizophrenic’, and ‘bipolar’ as adjectives for every day emotions and occurrences, and even insults.

Problems occur when people start using serious medical mental health terminology as a common descriptor or hyperbole to talk about everything from the weather to small character traits in themselves or others. These words are medical descriptors, names of symptoms and conditions, specific illnesses with very specific criteria needed to meet a diagnosis. “Semantic satiation” is the repetition of a word until all meaning is lost. The problem is that this loss of meaning aids in the persistence and even spread of stigma and misinformation about such conditions.

A report published earlier this year showed that as many as 49% of UK adults misuse mental health terminology, including words like “psychotic”, “depressed” and “schizophrenic”.  This is surprising given that 53% of adults believe that people are more aware about mental health conditions than they were five years ago. The same study showed that women were more likely to misuse these terms when describing themselves, whereas men and those under 35 were more likely to use them when describing someone else, or as an insult. It is not just individuals that misuse these terms either. There are many examples of prominent publications that have used these terms in an offensive way and later had to apologise for it. In December of 2010 for example, the Observer newspaper apologised for describing TV presenter Gok Wan’s dress style as ‘schizophrenic’. In September of 2011 the World Economic Outlook characterised the global economy as ‘bipolar’, and later apologised for the use of the term.

So which words are misused most commonly?

Whilst the following is not an inclusive list, it does include some of the most commonly misused and misunderstood psychological terms.

Psychotic / Psycho 

Many people use this term to describe behaviour that is deemed unacceptable and ‘crazy’ or abnormal. In fact the word describes a very specific psychological symptom that can present in a number of different illnesses. The word ‘psychotic’ describes a person who is no longer able to discern what is reality and what is fantasy. This may manifest as hearing voices that are not there, visual hallucinations, bouts of paranoia / delusions, or a combination of many of these. Psychosis is most often associated with schizophrenia and sometimes bipolar disorder, but can also be brought on by acute stress or alcohol or drug abuse amongst other things.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is often described as one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses. The term schizophrenia is most often used to refer to a split-personality or double-mindedness. This is very far from the true meaning of the term however. Schizophrenia is a serious illness caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain which causes people with the condition to have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy.  Symptoms include psychosis, hearing voices, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and irrational fears, or a combination of these.

Psychopath/sociopath 

Both of these are words that are commonly used to describe people who act in ways that can be considered unacceptable or heinous. These disorders are very complicated however, and whilst people use the terms interchangeably, they are not the same thing.

Psychopath

  • People diagnosed with psychopathy tend to be born, and researchers think that it is likely that there is a genetic component to the illness
  • People with psychopathy have been shown to have underdeveloped components of their brain that are thought to be responsible for emotional regulation and impulse control. This causes them to have difficulty forming real emotional attachments to other people, and rarely feeling guilt or genuine concern for other people. Instead they tend to form artificial relationships that are often designed to be manipulated in ways which most benefit them.

Sociopath

  • Conversely this is thought to ordinarily be the result of environmental factors such as child or teenage upbringing in a very negative household that results in trauma or abuse.
  • Research has shown that people with this illness tend to be more impulsive and erratic in their behaviour, especially when compared to that of someone with psychopathy. For example whilst a psychopath, even when engaging in risky behaviour, will make sure that their actions will not harm themselves even if they do others, a person with sociopathy typically shows little regard for consequences even when their actions could harm themselves.
  • Whilst like psychopaths they have difficulty forming emotional attachments to other people, they are more capable of doing so with like minded people.

The list of misused terms goes on and on. Words like ‘depressed’ and terms like ‘OCD’ are constantly used as general descriptors for minor habits and character traits. People say they are depressed when they are annoyed at having to work the weekend, or that they are OCD because they like a tidy kitchen. Many however would argue that people are over-reacting, or that people are being too sensitive. The problem is that these terms are not generic descriptors, but specific illnesses. It’s the difference between saying ‘I have a headache’ and ‘I have a brain tumour’. Using such terms incorrectly simultaneously serves to undermine the severity of the person’s suffering, and perpetuate the misinformation and stigma surrounding these illnesses.