The Harm Caused by Using Psychiatric Terms Incorrectly
Some people will look at this title and think “Here we go again. Another silly rant with demands for political correctness.” As a writer who focuses on mental health and disability topics, I tend to roll my eyes too at some of the outrageous demands for political correctness in the disability community and have written several articles on the subject.
When it comes to terminology regarding mental illness, however, I feel that as a society, we need to take a second look at the language we use and the harm that misuse of these terms can cause.
I have loved ones, friends, and people in my life with serious mental health disorders such as chronic depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. I have seen the damage done when people misuse the mental health terms such as psychotic, schizophrenic, OCD, psychopath, and bipolar. This misuse perpetuate myths about mental illness, creates stigma, blames the mentally ill for their condition, and put them down. We need to rethink our vocabulary and understand what commonly misused mental health terminology really mean.
The Negative Fallout
Let’s face it, when we call someone psychotic or bipolar, it is not to praise them. It is to criticize, ridicule, and label them as “crazy” or weak. When we call people by these terms, we are expressing our discomfort, disgust, and fear of people with mental illness. Psychiatric terms are sometimes used inaccurately criticize a people's behavior as too extreme. For example, someone who is keeps an immaculately clean house is incorrectly labeled as "OCD."
One big problem with putting psychiatric labels on people is that it oversimplifies complex medical conditions. People who use this terminology fail to recognize the seriousness of mental illness and are more likely to blame people for their symptoms. People who suffer from the symptoms of mental illness, in turn, feel like failures and do not seek the help they need.
The Myth that Mental Illness is the Patient’s Fault
A common misconception is that mental illness is the result of person’s poor choices. If they would just straighten themselves up, stop being so “psychotic” and get over it, they would be fine. The use of some terms reinforces a sense of failure in the mentally ill people because they cannot just “get over it.” Mentally ill people feel guilt and shame, that they are weak, and that their illness is their fault.
Incorrect Term Usage Reinforces Stigma
Mentally ill people probably won’t seek help because they fear no one will take them seriously or will judge them harshly. The media tends to characterize people with mental illness as being violent. Stigma keeps many people from seeking help.
Some are afraid that they will end up in a psychiatric hospital for a long time and be permanently labeled. In reality, most mental illnesses do not require long periods of hospitalization. A person with a psychotic break many be hospitalized for up to 72 hours to determine the severity of their symptoms and the correct treatment. In my country (Canada), mental health patients have strong rights in place and can refuse hospitalization beyond that in most situations.
Commonly Misused Mental Illness Terminology
Some people use the term psychotic to describe what they see as unacceptable or crazy behavior. In actuality, psychosis is a specific medical term that means a person has lost touch with reality and suffers from hallucinations and delusions.
Psychotic breaks are associated with schizophrenia, and at times, bipolar disorder and other conditions. Psychosis can also be brought on by extreme stress, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors. Anti-psychotic drugs can be effective in controlling psychosis.
Schizophrenia has described as the most misunderstood of all mental illnesses. The term “schizo” or “schizophrenic” are often misused in the media as well as conversations to mean a split personality, double-mindedness, and vacillating between two opinions. None of these descriptions is accurate.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that experts feel is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The main characteristic is that patients have difficulty distinguishing fantasy and reality, which can devastating consequences for the patient and for their family and loved ones. The movie “A Beautiful Mind” showed this disorder quite well.
- Hearing voices
- Hallucinations, delusions
- Paranoia and irrational fears (believing family is plotting against them, government conspiracies)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Some people use the term OCD to put down people for what they consider to be obsessive behavior. Actually, OCD is a disorder that causes people to feel extreme anxiety that can seriously impair their ability to function. They try to cope with repetitive thoughts, ideas, and feelings that cause tremendous anxiety by completing certain rituals like counting, or rechecking something. People with OCD did not choose to be this way and long to be free from it.
Some people describe people as bipolar, meaning that they are too moody. A common misperception is that people use being bipolar as an excuse to be moody and vent their feelings. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is actually a serious mental illness where people experience periods of euphoria, mania, and deep bouts of depression. Some people experience the symptoms of mania and depression at the same time, and these states can emerge multiple times a day or happen a few days a year.
Some people chose to label people as psychopaths or sociopaths when they act in ways that could be considered unacceptable and heinous. In reality, this disorder is a very complex condition, As the list to the right indicates.
Characteristics of psychopaths:
- no regard for the feelings of others
- an inability to feel deep emotions
- blaming others for their problems
- inflated ego
- an inability to moderate their responses to people
- an inability to make plans for the future
Antisocial personality disorder
Hollywood tends to label movie villains such as the Annie Wilkes character in Misery and the Hannibal Lecter character from Silence of the Lambs having as antisocial personality disorder, but experts say that they don’t fall under this diagnosis. The media tends to put this label on people who commit crimes such as homicide. Antisocial personality disorder has many characteristics such as no regard for what is right or wrong, and not caring about the feelings and rights of other people.
Some people use mental illness terminology in a way that seems innocent, like saying a person is schizophrenic because they are torn between two points of view. However, using psychological terms to label people's idiosyncrasies trivializes serious mental illness and may perpetuate misconceptions and stigma. Patients feel as if their condition is their fault and that they need to just “get over it.” They feel shame that keeps them from seeking the help they need.
We need to stop labeling people and accept them for who they are. People who are mentally ill need people in their lives who will support them and encourage them to seek help. Medication and specialized therapies can help people to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Mental illness is not an exact science, though. It takes time to find treatments that work, and adjustments need to be made at times. Symptoms can resurface and can be challenging to overcome. In the meantime, people who struggle with mental health issues need our support, not labels.
'She's OCD!' 'He's Schizo!' How Misused Health Lingo Can Harm, Meghan Holohan, NBC News
10 most misunderstood mental health disorders, Radiology Technician Schools
What Is a Psychopath?, Psychology Today, William Hirstein, Ph.D.
Top 10 Myths about Mental Health, PsychCentral, John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
© 2015 Carola Finch