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  • Alethia Winley

5 Commonly Misused Mental Health Phrases and What They Really Mean

In a world where the full extent of human knowledge is a few clicks away, we are often bombarded with misinformation. It can be tricky to decipher what is true. With the increase in Mental Health Awareness online as well as Mental Health Influencers, we often see posts about mental health that often use genuine psychological phrases incorrectly. For example, many people will say they have anxiety or depression when they are really feeling stressed or a bit down. To help combat this misinformation, let’s go over some commonly misused mental health phrases together.

OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

How It Is Misused: We often use “OCD” as another word for “neat” or “clean”. We’ll say ourselves or others are “so OCD” if they simply like being organized or keeping their personal space clean.

What It Really Means: OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is not “being neat”. OCD is “a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions). To get rid of the thoughts, they feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions). The repetitive behaviors… can significantly interfere with a person’s daily activities and social interactions.”

People with OCD are seriously affected by the disorder in everyday life. The compulsions take up hours of their days and are uncontrollable. People with OCD also tend to have dysfunctional beliefs that can include an inflated sense of responsibility or the tendency to overestimate threats. For example, a person with OCD may have the obsessive thought of a family member suffering serious bodily harm. To help quell this thought (that is intrusive, persistent, and cannot be absolved by logic or reasoning), they may believe that if they turn the light switch on and off 3 times every time they leave the room, their family member will be safe. This action of turning the light switch on and off is a compulsion. They feel that it is their responsibility to protect their family member and overestimate the threat. OCD can look very different for many people, but the disorder significantly affects anyone who suffers from it. They may spend hours a day washing their hands with scalding water that leaves them with dry, cracked hands or even burns. Obsessive thoughts can be very distressing for a person with OCD and severely affect their mental health.

Bipolar / Bipolar Disorder

How It is Misused: “Bipolar” is often used in place of “moodiness” or “mood swings”.

What It Really Means: The American Psychological Association says, “Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness in which common emotions become intensely and often unpredictably magnified. Individuals with bipolar disorder can quickly swing from extremes of happiness, energy, and clarity to sadness, fatigue, and confusion. These shifts can be so devastating that individuals may consider suicide.” People with Bipolar Disorder experience episodes of extreme mania that can lead to disturbances in relationships, poor financial decisions, loss of income, or other life-altering events. These manic episodes last at least a week, if not more. Some people with Bipolar Disorder also experience extreme lows or periods of depression. This sudden switch from mania to depression greatly affects one’s mental health and can also lead to severe, life-altering events.

Psycho, Psychotic, and Psychopath

How It is Misused: We’ve all called an ex, a boss, or a friend “psycho” when they do something that bothers us or acted in a way we consider to be unconventional or uncalled for.

What It Really Means: First, “psychopath” or “psychopathy” are outdated terms. The DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual for mental disorders) doesn’t even include “psychopathy” as a term. The closest term would be Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). According to the APA, “People with antisocial personality disorder may repeatedly disregard or violate the rights of others, may lie, deceive or manipulate others, act impulsively, or disregard their or others’ safety. They may have problems with drug or alcohol use, may violate the law, and typically show no remorse or guilt.” As with all mental disorders, the symptoms must be clinically significant (meaning they cause serious impairment and problems in one’s daily life) to warrant a diagnosis. Therefore, calling your boss a “psycho” because they corrected you one time is wildly inaccurate.

Why Does it Matter?

When we misuse these terms, it can be damaging to both ourselves and those who struggle with these disorders. It is damaging to us because it solidifies misinformation and leaves us ignorant. We might not know how to support someone who is struggling with a mental health disorder if we have misconceptions about what the disorder looks like and how it affects those who have it. Misusing these terms can also be very damaging to those who struggle with them because they may feel misunderstood, isolated, or unseen when these terms are thrown around so carelessly. It is important to understand these and other mental health phrases so that we can better live with those around us, constantly working towards understanding, health, and community.

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