Man covering his mouth to stop himself from saying something that's incorrect or inappropriate

Why the Misuse of Mental Health Terms Is Dangerous

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”, wrote Shakespeare.


He was referring to the fact that names are ultimately conventions defined by humans and not a reflection of the intrinsic quality of things. While that may be true, providing a name and label to things helps us communicate efficiently with others and build a shared understanding of the world around us.


Mental Health is one area where the misuse of words, that otherwise have specific meanings, as a substitute for mundane feelings and everyday events is rampant. Haven’t we called someone Depressed to simply imply sadness or called someone OCD because they are obsessive about cleaning?


These seemingly harmless mistakes cause grave harm to people who suffer from mental health conditions by either invalidating their feelings or adding to the stigma they may already experience.

In this blog, we will look at some of the most misused terms and understand their correct usage.


Sadness vs Depression


A big part of being human is our ability to feel a varied range of emotions.

One among them is feeling sad. All of us feel down from time to time and the sadness can affect our productivity at work or how we engage with others socially. However, we feel sad for a while, maybe for a couple of days, and then gradually return to normal.


In contrast to this is the condition of Depression. Depression is a darker and more powerful affliction of the mind that can completely overwhelm a person’s very being. It may often appear less ominously, as one may start feeling duller and less joyous, but slowly, the dull mood becomes the only feeling that one may experience.

“One of the most defining symptoms of Depression is Anhedonia or the loss of ability to find pleasure and meaning in things that were once enjoyable.”

People who are depressed tend to withdraw from social interactions and avoid activities that were once a source of joy, which further feeds their Depression leading to more withdrawal and avoidance.


Another hallmark of Depression is the constant mental fatigue that one experiences which makes it difficult to make decisions, even the simpler ones.

Depression can also erode our will and the ability to guide our actions and behaviors toward achieving a goal, in face of challenges. A person who is experiencing Depression knows and wants to get the work done but is just unable to get it done.


In severe cases, the depressed mood is so intense that the future looks hopeless, and the person may start to doubt her self-worth. Often, these unhelpful thoughts about self and the future lead to thoughts of harming oneself.

That Depression is confused with sadness is one reason why people suffering from Depression often feel invalidated, as they are advised to “just be positive” and shake off the gloom.


In summary, Depression is a serious clinical condition that impacts one’s thoughts, mood, and behavior that needs attention, and is very different from ordinary sadness.


Feeling Anxious vs Having Anxiety


Whether we like it or not, all of us have faced or will probably face situations that evoke a sense of fear and/or anxiety. These emotions are useful and, by triggering the famous fight or flight response, have helped humans survive when faced with dangerous situations.


Feeling anxious is a normal stress response, often manifesting physiologically in a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, contraction of various muscles in the body, etc. Once the cause of stress is removed, the feeling of anxiety subsides.

Having an anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is very different. Someone with an anxiety disorder can experience excessive and uncontrollable anxiety which does not go away after the stressor is removed.


What is also common with anxiety disorders is excessive and uncontrollable worrying about anticipated or imagined threats. As an example, someone with an anxiety disorder may wake up feeling that something wrong is going to happen to a loved one, and then continue to have intrusive and unpleasant thoughts about it all day.

In general, two things need to be present that define an anxiety disorder as opposed to simply being anxious.

  1. The anxiety is out of proportion to the situation
  2. It impairs the ability to function normally

For someone with a possible anxiety disorder, it is important to seek help to manage it effectively.


Obsession with cleanliness vs OCD


We all have met someone in our families or among our friends who is very concerned with cleanliness. In other words, they are somewhat ‘obsessive’ about keeping their surroundings neat and clean.

Given its often inaccurate representation in the popular media, the word OCD often crops up in our minds whenever we think of these people. It is a common misconception that “neat freaks” have OCD, perhaps because cleanliness and obsession with ordering or symmetry are common types of OCD.


Here is the difference: People with OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder are constantly bombarded with thoughts that their environment is dirty or contaminated and that every time they touch something, they, or their family risk the chance of contracting an illness.

These uncontrolled intrusive thoughts cause them to experience extreme levels of anxiety, and the only way for them to feel a sense of relief is by engaging in behaviors that reduce the anxiety. This combination of unrelenting thoughts is called “obsessions” and the actions (such as cleaning repeatedly) they may perform to manage these thoughts and reduce the anxiety are termed “compulsions”. Together, they are called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The distress and the disturbance that OCD brings with itself are immense and it severely impairs an individual’s functionality. A person with OCD is so engrossed or rather caught up with his/her obsessions and making sure that nothing bad happens because of it, that she has hardly any time to concentrate on work or engage in any activity that soothes the mind.

This is vastly different in magnitude than merely being fastidious and obsessed with cleanliness.


In summary, OCD is a distressing condition that needs correct diagnosis and effective management.

There are many more on the list of misused terms such as mood changes vs. bipolar disorder or introversion vs. social anxiety. Too many to recount here in a single blog!

“One of the reasons why these terms continue to be misused in common parlance is that most mental health conditions have symptoms over a spectrum. A little anxiety is normal, but the excessive and uncontrolled version is most likely a disorder.”

Depression looks a lot like sadness, though of a much higher magnitude and with an array of other complex symptoms.

We must understand the meanings behind these terms and the gravity of these conditions, so we can support those who are suffering and need our support.


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