Language surrounding mental health can be harmful when misused

A woman with her eyes closed on a blue background has her brain highlighted in blue, signifying her pursuit of mental health

Gerald Sastra/ The Cougar

Over the last decade or so, conversations around mental health have shifted significantly, especially when it comes to Gen Z. Mental illness has become a normal topic to talk about, both online and in real life.

In many ways, this is a positive change. The widespread discussion of mental health issues has led to more awareness, making it easier to find community and seek help when needed. It’s undeniable that younger generations also have a far more positive outlook on mental health than their predecessors, which has been great for minimizing the stigma around mental illness. Unfortunately, however, there are downsides to these discussions becoming normalized.

One major issue with this development is that it’s arguably led to an overuse of “therapy speak.” This kind of language includes genuinely useful clinical terms such as triggering, trauma, neurodivergent and many others. When used correctly, these terms can be helpful, but there’s been a recent rise in casual use of expressions like these. While it may seem harmless to some, the way many people use this language sometimes crosses the dangerous line between destigmatization and complete misuse.


One particular issue that’s become somewhat common on social media lately is content that aims to bring awareness to different symptoms of mental disorders. These kinds of videos are created in order to help people learn about disorders and potentially help with the process of being diagnosed. While this idea is not inherently bad, the symptoms listed tend to be fairly vague. This distinct lack of detail that has led to many people, particularly teenagers, self-diagnosing and deciding that they have certain disorders.

Now, why is this bad? While self diagnosis is a great tool that can help lead professional diagnoses, it’s irresponsible to do so without proper research. A short video of symptoms without any real nuance is not a good way to learn about mental disorders, especially if the video is coming from someone without any professional credentials.

Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder can be extremely draining and make it difficult to function in life. Symptoms of these disorders are not as simple as being forgetful, frequently fidgeting or being particularly clean, and reducing them to something so simple isn’t helpful to anyone.

Misusing disorders

Another issue with these kinds of clinical terms is how flippantly some people use them. For example, many people casually use OCD to describe themselves or other people without really thinking about it. While certainly not a new phenomenon, the trend of saying things like “I’m so OCD” or “you’re so ADHD” can be harmful to those with these disorders, not to mention how this type of language is frequently rooted in stereotypes.

Equating common traits like cleanliness or forgetfulness with a potentially debilitating mental health condition is harmful because it perpetuates stereotypes about mentally ill people, and it can also be alienating to people with said disorders. In some serious cases, it can even lead to people with these symptoms not wanting to seek help out of fear of being ostracized.

Another increasingly common issue, especially in online spaces, is the misuse of words like “triggered.” A trigger, in the context of mental health, is an event or experience that, when mentioned to an individual dealing with mental illness, has the potential to lead to a worsened emotional state or symptoms. It’s commonly used in regards to people that have experienced trauma in the past.

In recent years, however, it’s become an expression that’s used in the same ways as terms like upset or uncomfortable, which is undeniably harmful to those with genuine triggers. The theft and misuse of terms like these delegitimizes people with a very real history of trauma.


It’s undoubtedly very validating to find other people online that are willing to speak on mental health topics you can relate to. It’s also easy to offhandedly joke about terms you don’t fully understand. Talking about mental health in a respectful manner can be difficult, and the importance of normalizing these topics cannot be understated.

However, the language surrounding these topics is important too. While it can be validating to find others that relate to you, consider taking some time to genuinely think about how you’re discussing these topics. If we’re not careful, eventually we run the risk of normalizing these terms so much that they completely lose their meaning, and that would do nothing except harm the people that need these discussions the most.

Parker Hodges-Beggs is a journalism sophomore who can be reached at [email protected]

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