Word choice matters when talking about mental illness

Shae Caragher, Staff Writer

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Everyone gets sad; it is inevitable. A number of life events can leave you feeling sad: your favorite team losing the Super Bowl, fighting with a friend, getting a bad grade, being denied from a job, losing a loved one, or going through divorce, and the list goes on. Sadness, however, is often mistaken with or labeled as depression. These “non-synonyms” are often used interchangeably in such a way that  the real meaning of depression is lost and so the extreme suffering related to clinical depression is dismissed.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression is a diagnosable mental disorder that causes feelings of sadness and can affect daily activities such as sleeping, eating, or working. The DSM-V characterizes a diagnosis of depression as presenting symptoms of depression for two or more weeks. Sadness is a symptom of depression, but sadness alone is only a small part of this complicated disorder. 

There is a general lack of understanding, yet abundance of stigma surrounding mental disorders, and by exclaiming, “I’m depressed” one is feeding into that ignorance. While this is a universal issue, I see this so often at Westmont as well. The phrase has become a blanket statement to cover seemingly any form of uncomfortable emotions. What many students do not recognize is that when they say they are depressed and are not actually struggling with clinical depression, they are discounting those who are suffering. People with depression are hospitalized; I myself entered into a treatment center. Depression affects your ability to perform in school and work, make friends, interact in society, and even complete basic tasks like feeding yourself or showering. In extreme cases, people with depression are even hospitalized and enter treatment centers.

Students often mistake symptoms of a greater mental illness for the mental illness in and of itself. Depression has led me personally to a treatment center, prevented me from interacting with friends, going to school, feeding and cleaning myself, self harm … the list goes on. I have seen friends and family completely broken down and destroyed by severe mental illness. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1.3 million people attempted suicide and up to 60% of people who commit suicide have a form of major depressive disorder. Depression severely affects your life; sadness affects a moment. Sadness is only a small part of the dark disorder.

The same goes for so many other mental health disorders. If something is out of order on a shelf and you want to adjust it, “Ah! I’m so OCD!” You cannot focus on a study guide and keep getting distracted, “Oh my gosh I’m so ADD!” You have a test coming up and sigh in the library, “I’m so anxious!!!” There are also those who have clinical OCD, ADD, and anxiety in response to these situations, but for those without a diagnosis, a misuse of vocabulary is unwarranted. . 

Everyone struggles in life and everyone has problems. It is important to acknowledge these  issues and not ignore them, but it is equally important to address them using proper jargon. Sadness is not an easy emotion to experience and I do not want to argue that one should be deterred from sharing their sadness. Rather the statement, “I’m sad” should be put into practice over a generic statement of “ I’m depressed.” So next time you’re feeling sad and want to share, which it is important to confide in friends, remember that there is proper vocabulary to communicate emotions rather than a diagnosable illness.