I'm so OCD that I can't stop cleaning my kitchen once I start!"
"I'm so depressed that my favorite celebrity couple broke up."
"Her moods change so fast from happy to angry; she must be a total schizo."
You hear it all the time: People casually using terms for mental illness to describe themselves or other people's behavior. On the one hand, our culture is talking more about mental illness than ever before. On the other hand, "psychobabble" terms have become so mainstream that they're inevitably misused. The challenge we face is to learn ways to talk about mental health that don't confuse and water-down their meanings or create even more taboos about mental illness so we can keep improving our dialogue about mental health.
What's the difference between clinical depression and feeling sad/down? What's the difference between someone who really likes to keep their space organized and clean and a person who has clinical OCD? Why does using these terms in the right context matter?
The difference between having symptoms of a mental illness and actually having a clinically diagnoseable mental illness is functionality. We all have symptoms of something, but not everyone has symptoms so intense that it impacts their ability to function in their daily lives. In order to be diagnosed with a mental illness, your symptoms need to meet the criteria for the illness (outlined in the DSM 5) and the symptoms need to negatively impact your ability to function at home, work, school, in friendships, relationships, etc.
You can feel depressed without being clinically depressed. It's when your feelings of depression, and other symptoms, become so troublesome that they get in the way of you living your life that it becomes a clinical issue. You can really enjoy structure and cleanliness, but if you aren't having invasive thoughts and compulsions to clean or organize to help deal with the crippling anxiety caused by the invasive thoughts, you don't have OCD. A person can be behaving erratically for whatever reason, but not be a "schizo" or "psycho." These terms stand for real mental and medical health conditions that create real suffering and they should not be used glibly.
When these terms are used around people who legitimately struggle with a diagnosed mental illness, it stigmatizes them, diminishes their suffering, and can make them less likely to get help. I've heard stories of people avoiding therapy for years because they'd heard casual or mocking use of mental health terms that made them feel "crazy" for actually having that illness. Using those terms respectfully, and in the correct context, opens up our communication about the very real issues around mental health.
Some may think correcting how we use language about mental health is a mark of the "special snowflake" mentally of "those darn millennials," but using correct terminology about mental health matters. Mental illness is surrounded with myths, taboos, and sometimes flat out fear. Incorrectly using terms that relate to mental health only further damages our ability to see people who struggle with mental illness as normal people with common health issues. Correctly using these terms helps focus our conversations on normalizing mental health struggles so people are encouraged to get help and support instead of fearing reaching out.
Remember, experts estimate that 1 person in 4 will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives. Even if this doesn't impact your life now, it will at some point. Whether it's you or someone you love, it will matter.