Why we need to stop appropriating mental health terms and diagnoses

A hand wearing a thumb ring and black nail polish holding a folded piece of paper that reads #bekind against a blue sky

Whether it’s referring to somebody as being ‘triggered’ because they get annoyed during an argument, or declaring yourself ‘depressed’ because you are having a bad day, we as a society need to stop appropriating and misusing mental health terms. Being tidy does not mean you have ‘OCD’, and being moody does not make somebody ‘bipolar’. We are doing mental health awareness and acceptance a disservice every time we misuse a mental health diagnosis in a way that denotes an minor hindrance and turn it into a trifling, everyday irritant.

Depression is a condition of the body as well as the mind. In addition to the crippling low mood, people suffering from depression also experience gastric problems, sleep disturbances, headaches, numbness to the world around them, and a whole host of problems, as shown on the graphic below from an Instagram account which provides easy to access mental health information and infographics.


When people say they are depressed purely because they are having a bad day it reduces the impact of the word ‘depression’ to being a buzz word. Depression becomes a minor inconvenience. People are told to shrug it off because ‘everybody gets depressed sometimes’. By equating depression to feeling bummed out for a while because of something that’s happening in the moment, when in actual fact you will feel your normal self in 48 hours, minimises those horrible feelings and all the work that is done to promote mental health awareness and understanding goes out of the window.

Depression is the most common term to be appropriated and misused, but it isn’t the only one. The use of the word ‘triggered’ seems to be on the rise, and with far more troubling connotations. The times where I see the word ‘triggered’ misused the most seems to be on social media, wherever argument and debate breaks out (so essentially everywhere).
If a person, (usually referred to as a ‘snowflake’), seems to be angry or upset, the common insult to be thrown is that they have been triggered. What I find much more concerning about this buzz word is the mockery behind it. To be triggered usually seems to denote a weakness, a temper tantrum or something to taunt.

But if you ask somebody who suffers mental illness what it is to be triggered you find that it has a far darker meaning. For a person suffering from trauma, eating disorders, self harm impulses, or mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, to be triggered denotes that the person has suffered an increase or return of symptoms, or feel they are experiencing the trauma again, whether through flashback or emotional bodily response. Yet when triggered is used as an insult, made into memes, and used to mock somebody, once again the word has been misappropriated. Again this makes it significantly harder to educate and increase awareness about the true impact of triggers, and being triggered, on somebody with PTSD or anorexia to name but two conditions.

You aren’t ‘OCD’ if you are tidy (OCD frequently being used as an adjective), without experiencing true obsessions, and the compulsions used to squash them. Somebody who is bipolar has a disorder with the potential to be incredibly destructive when both mania and depression comes with suicidal ideation, poor impulse control, reckless behaviour, and a lack of awareness and insight. I’ve experienced debt, put myself in risky situations, and made more than one attempt to complete suicide. Equating it to somebody being moody diminishes the story I, and others like me, have to tell, and makes it that much harder to have our illnesses and disorders taken seriously.

There is, thankfully, much more of a push these days to put mental health on a par with physical health. It isn’t there yet though. The funding into research and treatment is second rate by comparison. In terms of employment it is hard to be supported as a person with mental illness. And the problem is that it is a whole culture that needs changed and overhauled. Its hard to find an analogy to physical illness as I write this, but if somebody is referred to as crippled most people would move to stamp these insults out. Yet it still seems acceptable to throw insults such as triggered, crazy or ‘schitzo’, whether in jest or not, and equate mental illness with weakness and derision, or to simply minimise mental illness terms by equating them to daily disruptions as experienced by most people regularly, so that when a person actually is diagnosed with a mental illness it is brushed off because it is viewed as one of these hindrances.

This isn’t about policing language, or chasing an impossible level of political correctness. It is about having a thoughtful narrative. It’s about considering if the words you use have an impact on somebody already struggling with a heavy burden. It’s about imagining yourself being in the place of suffering with a mental illness, trying to raise awareness, and instead seeing it being put on a par with a minor inconvenience. Until we overhaul our use of language as a society and choose a kinder conversation, the work of mental health awareness is on a hiding to nothing.


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