Within the past several years, it has become more accepted to talk freely about our mental health. This is incredible progress toward treating our mental health with the same importance as our physical health. But one, possibly unforeseen, outcome is that it has led us to dramatize mental health conditions, casually diagnosing ourselves and others with what is now thought of as everyday, normal language. (For example, “she’s so crazy, “I’m so OCD,” “that outfit was traumatizing.” You get the idea.)
While this might seem harmless, it can be minimizing toward those who live with these mental health conditions. “If you don’t realize how difficult it is to have to put your pencil in the same spot every day, you might not be aware of how hurtful it can be to joke that you’re OCD because you have a clean house,” says Alana Davis, MSW, a clinical social worker at Henry Ford Health. “We often don’t realize the power behind our words.”
Here’s the thing: we’re all learning as we go. By making a conscious effort to think about the language we’ve grown to normalize—and how it might affect others—we can become more inclusive, empathetic and understanding. Here are a few phrases to watch out for and what you can say instead:
- She’s so crazy. “I think crazy is such a broad, generalized statement these days,” says Davis. “But I’ve never actually met anyone who’s crazy. We all have times of intense emotion, which is when I think we fall back on that word. Instead of using crazy, we can describe what we actually mean: upset, sad, disappointed, angry. If we dig deeper, we are more able to identify emotions and understand what is actually wrong.”
- I’m so OCD. “I always hear OCD being used as a synonym for being clean and organized,” says Davis. “But OCD is actually a very difficult condition to manage. Instead of using OCD as a synonym for tidy or neat, you can say ‘particular,’ or ‘orderly.’”
- That was traumatic, I have PTSD. Someone who has suffered childhood trauma, or a war veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, are forever affected by these experiences. So instead of saying, for example, “I have PTSD from that meal last night,” or “I can’t go back to that nail salon, it was a traumatic experience,” we can say “they messed up my nails, I’m not going there again,” or “that meal was horrible.” More often than not, we use those terms loosely to say something had an impact on us or changed the way we look at an experience.
- My anxiety is through the roof. Anxiety is becoming increasingly common, especially since the start of the pandemic. But the difference between anxiety and worry (which is something everyone experiences) is that anxiety impacts your ability to function. “Anxiety usually manifests itself as an uncontrollable worry that inhibits you from being able to live your day-to-day life,” Davis says. “That said, if you do think you have anxiety, please don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
- I’m going to kill myself, I’m suicidal. Most importantly, if you do feel this way, please seek help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But if you are saying these phrases in a joking or exaggerated manner, try to find words that describe how you’re actually feeling. “Maybe you’re disappointed, maybe you’re feeling directionless, maybe you’re embarrassed,” says Davis. “Pinpointing your emotions doesn’t just create more inclusive mental health language, it can also help you to better express—and understand— yourself in the long run.”
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Alana Davis, MSW, is a behavioral health therapist at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Behavioral Health—1 Ford Place in Detroit.