I have only once heard someone without a mental illness use the word schizophrenic to describe their actions. A man once said to me, “I’m going this way and that way. I’m so schizophrenic.” But on countless occasions I have heard someone without a mental illness use the word depression to describe a myriad of feelings or emotions. For example, “I am so depressed that Starbucks only serves the pumpkin latte for a short time every year.”
People are not actually depressed about a pumpkin latte, or getting a bad grade on a test, or that they finished watching the last episode of Breaking Bad. Those feelings or reactions can be disappointment, a sense of failure, a sense of loss, or something else, but by themselves those feelings or reactions are not depression.
The word depression has become so overused by people that I can no longer tell when someone is referring to the mental illness, or is having a bad day. Recently I found myself telling someone who said they thought they were depressed to try exercise. I would never say that to someone who I thought was suffering from a mental illness. That piece of advice isn’t helpful, and is completely insensitive to someone who actually is suffering from depression and may be having trouble getting out of bed. (And exercise can at times help with symptoms, but it certainly doesn’t “cure” mental illness).
Depression isn’t the only diagnosis to have been taken by popular culture and used in ways that no longer resemble the actual illness. People frequently misuse the word anxiety and panic attack, too. I have heard people say, that this situation or that situation gave them a “panic attack.” The people I am referring to don’t actually mean that their heart was racing or they thought they were going to die. They actually mean they were startled, alarmed, or surprised. (OCD is another diagnosis that is used by people without the illness in order to describe organization, a desire to clean, etc.).
When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness over twenty years ago, people recommended to me that I not talk about my illness. They thought that people would reject me, and I would have a hard time socializing and keeping my job. Many things have changed in the last two decades and there has been a great deal more openness and information about mental illness. There are campaigns in order to end the stigma, end the shame, and to educate the public.
All of these efforts are positive, and I am thankful that we have come such a long way, but the fact that almost everyone has been exposed in some way to the concept, if not the reality of depression, and to a lesser degree, other mental illnesses, has resulted in people adopting actual diagnoses into their speech. In fact, it is more than just adopting them into every day speech it is really claiming those diagnoses as their own regardless of the original meaning.
I’m not going to try to fight against people using words like depression to describe a bad day, because it is so wide spread that to fight against it would be to spend all of my time trying to educate people about their use of the word and the actual mental illness it describes. Instead of fighting against the language most people now use, I am going suggest instead that we come up with new words for some of the most common of the mental illnesses, and I hope we start with a new word for depression –knowing the difference can save lives.
Depression image available from Shutterstock