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The Dangers of Over-Using Mental Health Buzzwords

As mental health professionals, we are acutely aware of the gap between the number of people with diagnosable, verifiable and treatable psychological and mental health issues versus the number that actually receive appropriate care. Sadly, while the former is on the rise the latter is just not catching up. We are woefully behind, both in access to care and in the number of people that are receiving appropriate care.

One of the true challenges in comprehensive mental health treatment revolves around the concept of stigma. It is something that we see every day when treating patients of all races, colors and creeds. To be sure, cultural influences play a role in the societal stigma associated with mental health treatment, but across virtually every demographic, we are seeing that mental health issues are being discussed and recognized by more people than ever before.

And that’s a great thing until the topic is overused, misappropriated and abused.

When we discuss the concept of overuse, by no means do we mean that someone who believes they are suffering from a mental health disorder should be treated skeptically. Rather, there is a disturbing trend in the flippant use of mental health disorders to describe anything from basic, erratic behavior to trying to diagnose what otherwise would be classified as a relatively normal, albeit quirky, activity.

So, what trap do we risk falling into?

We likely all know someone who may be considered introverted, shy, or maybe awkward in social situations. Some of us may see this for what it is – a natural variation in human behavior and social interaction. Others, through their choice of words, may conjure up insidious mental health disorders – “he’s antisocial,” “she’s a psycho,” “he’s retarded.” Not only does this affect the perception of, and ultimately interaction with, the subject, but it can start a vicious cycle of social isolation that, in turn, forces that person to withdraw even further. More broadly, however, by misappropriating a legitimate mental health diagnosis to what is normal behavioral variation, chips away at the seriousness of the problem.

Strategies we can all take to take a step in the right direction

First, and most important, comes the recognition of mental health disorders as the diseases that they truly are. Along with that, we also have to recognize the prevalence of mental health disorders. Millions of Americans suffer from mental health issues, from mild to severe.

Second, we must be aware of how we label those around us. Whether joking or with a grain of truth, our words have power – most especially the power to influence others and their interactions. These comments and feelings can also affect a younger generation and how they act towards those who may be different – whether exhibiting “normal” quirks or real signs of disease. We have the power to either lay the foundation for a more responsive and receptive generation or one that is hardened to the plight of those with mental health problems.

There are times where even the most flippant comments may have some truth behind them. Indeed, some who withdraw from social situations might be clinically antisocial or psychotic or may have intellectual or behavioral disorders. Others may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. When this is the case, we as a community can begin to shine. We have a choice. We can choose to complain about and deride someone’s condition, or we can take concrete effort to rally the community and get someone the help that they so desperately need.

As with anything in our lives, there is also the time when, quite simply, nothing can be done and no individual can or should help. These moments, while unfortunate, will always exist.

The bottom line is that we all can play a role in both destigmatizing mental health and reinforcing that the disease is prevalent and serious in today’s society. This begins with education and communication, which together can bring both awareness and significant movement toward bridging the gap between true need and access to care.