Words matter. At some point, we all may have casually tossed a psychiatric adjective to describe a situation or person. There is usually no malicious intent behind the use of these colloquialisms. However, during these strange and unprecedented political times, psychiatric terms seem to be thrown around more so by those trying to paint a picture of current prominent figures. A late-night show host referred to someone as “being off his meds.” A former White House official used the term “paranoid schizophrenic” to describe an adversary. Whether being used humorously or not, these phrases have the potential to do more harm than is realized.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (a great resource for those with mental illness as well as family and friends impacted by it), approximately one in five adults in the U.S., roughly 43.8 million, experience mental illness in a given year. Furthermore, one in 25 adults, roughly 9.8 million, experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., and individuals with a serious mental illness are at a higher risk of having various other chronic medical conditions.
The battle against the stigma of mental illness is ongoing. Some strides have been made, but there’s still a long way to go before people can talk as openly about depression or bipolar disorder as people with diabetes can about their insulin pumps. The casual use of psychiatric terms continues to fortify the walls that people build around themselves rather than tear them down. Some people with truly debilitating mental illness are already reluctant to seek care. When they see that certain terms are ascribed to the behaviors of prominent and divisive political personalities in an inappropriate manner, it erroneously serves to confirm their own biases as to what “crazy” means and further reinforces their reluctance in seeking help.
We don’t use other medical terms to describe abhorrent behaviors. No one says, “You’re so rude, you’re acting so hemorrhoidal,“ or “OMG, stop being such a hypertensive.” The causes of mental illness are as grounded in science as any other medical problem.
Words do matter. With casual repetition, these terms are likely to be picked up by the public consciousness and internalized for the wrong reasons. It is unfortunate when real world struggles become synonymized with the non-psychiatric inappropriate behaviors of high profile personalities. Let’s avoid the frivolous use of psychiatric terminology in all forms of media. Let’s gently inform and educate those who do. Let’s ensure we’re not using these terms in front of young impressionable minds. Let’s try to use the plethora of other adjectives in our English language. Let’s aim to keep our clinical words clinical.
Respect the struggle of those with mental illness. Try to appreciate the gravitas of their lives. Do not reduce their experiences down to the caricatures of loud mouthed, disinhibited, petulant personalities. It’s insulting to the people with real issues, as well as those who care about them and provide care for them.
Smitha Murthy is a psychiatrist and can be reached on Twitter @smithgirl0906.
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