Defining the boundaries of mental health terms

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Apr. 13 was a sunny spring Saturday. On Apr. 14, the weather took a January-style turn with a freak blizzard. The weather was back and forth, unpredictable, surprising, confusing… but it was not bipolar. The headline “bipolar weather pattern” might get the point across of up and down weather, but it is not fair to use terms such as bipolar, triggered, and OCD as casual descriptors.

According to Kelsey Hoeper, Suicide Prevention Educator at Elyssa’s Mission, “When we equate a mental health disorder (e.g. bipolar disorder) with the changing weather, we are assuming we know what it’s like to live with the disorder; the remarks are hurtful, and they keep people from seeking help and reassurance. These statements have the power to greatly diminish a person’s experience.”

Senior Michelle Capone explained that this is especially true with the word triggered.

“Neurotypical people can say that without having any trauma or any actual thoughts behind it.”

The connection to trauma is, “not something to make fun of,” Capone said, because every time a trigger comes up, “you go back and relive that trauma.”

The word loses its meaning when it is used so often, creating the necessity of clarification and validation for a serious conversation.

Andrea Victor, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and co-founder of Chicago Neurodevelopmental Center in Northbrook, said we should be sensitive with these terms.

“When casually using these terms, it can invalidate the severity of the actual disorders.  Many adolescents struggle with anxiety, depression, and OCD and it often feels that these are not taken seriously when people use the terms in such an insensitive way.”

While everyone has different ways of taking care of their own mental health, there is a movement toward discussing potential issues to spread awareness and prevention. Topics of mental health affect everyone, but are still difficult to discuss.

“Some people use humor to cope,” Capone qualified, explaining that dealing with actual experience makes it difficult to discuss in an environment where mental health is mistakenly joked about.

“Overall that makes it hard to have those conversations when you actually have mental health issues. High school should be a place where you feel safe talking about that,” said Capone.

If the goal is to create an environment where people can share, Capone argued that mistreatment of the topic of mental health makes it impossible to differentiate serious problems from jokes.

Hoeper explained that we may offhandedly call a friend “bipolar,” for example, if they are known to often change their minds, or they go from appearing “totally fine” to really angry and annoyed.

“First, it’s normal to have ups and downs; it’s common for teens to experience the occasional mood swings. People with bipolar disorder experience high and low moods, or mania and depression. These changes in mood can last anywhere from a few hours, days, weeks, to months.”

There is a difference between being a neat freak and having OCD, feeling anxious and having anxiety, changing your mind and being bipolar.

“Many people have these behavioral traits and it does not mean they have a mental health disorder,” explained Victor. “These behaviors become disorders when they begin to interfere with an individual’s ability to function in their daily life (e.g., school, home, friends).”

True mental health disorders are serious matters, and treatment is important. Talking about these struggles thoughtfully is an important step in addressing mental health.

What we can do, senior Edie Browne said, simply involves “not using words like bipolar if you don’t know what it means. Just look it up or ask.”

Hoeper explained that learning about mental health will help people empathize and be able to have informed and respectful discussions.

“Students, peers and adults can work together to educate themselves on what it is like to live with a mental disorder, and to gain understanding on the challenges and triumphs of those who have experienced mental health conditions, as well as available treatment options. The key is to understand what good mental health means to you, and then to talk about it in the same way we would talk about physical health.”

Beyond ignorance of the real definition, use out of context can be harmful to anyone who has experience with mental health struggles, because, “It downplays any struggles people with OCD have,” said Browne.

She pointed out the misuse and overuse of the term OCD in an instance of a classmate being extra particular and neat in class.

“The teacher said she’s OCD, so I asked if she has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — and he brushed it off,” said Browne.

Capone elaborated, “You never know who has OCD and who doesn’t now.”

She explained that not knowing makes it easier to avoid the subject entirely to keep from offending anyone.

People may be moving toward future understanding with the USA Today headline, “Target accused of trivializing mental illness with ‘OCD’ sweater.”

Though the product (a sweater branding OCD as ‘Obsessive Christmas Disorder’) was insensitive, pulling it from the shelves this past December was a step in the direction of informed dialogue about mental health.

So let’s use more specific vocabulary in our daily lives, and save these mental health terms for when we need them.

It may be convenient to use your interpretation of a mental health disorder to describe something unrelated, but it is more considerate to limit these terms to where they factually apply.

Victor emphasized the importance of talking about mental health concerns without teasing: “Students need to be open to hearing about the impact of mental health on their peers and think about ways they can better support each other. As students are more open to talking about their experiences, they will likely be more willing and able to get the help they need.”