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Health & Wellness

Calling people crazy, OCD or psycho seems harmless. But it can hurt

It’s amazing how clean and organized your friend’s house is. You tell him he’s “so OCD.” After a long day at work, your mood swings from frustration to giddiness and your partner asks you “to stop being bipolar.”

Schizo. Psycho. Manic. Crazy. Anxious. Depressed.

Many people use psychiatric labels to put others down, perpetuating stigma around mental health.

“When we are tossing about these words to describe other behaviors, it can make people who have these disorders feel very diminished,” said Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist at the Center of Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic. “It can trivialize mental health.”

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The problem with incorrectly calling people psychiatric terms.

People often use such labels as shorthand or a way to better understand something that seems complex. You don’t understand why your girlfriend dumped you? It’s easier to call her a psycho.

“Reducing someone by saying ‘my ex is a psychopath’ that is meant to be mean. That is not meant to help,” said Sarah Petersen, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Also, using a psychiatric term to describe a certain behavior — cleanliness is OCD, for example — makes it seem as if everyone with the disorder acts the same way. This makes it difficult to people to understand and recognize mental health conditions.

“It is an oversimplification of something that is really complex. No two people who have bipolar are going to seem the same,” Bea said.

More than a condition

At the same time, it reduces a person to a condition, instead of being a person who has a condition — among other traits.

“There is more to them than just the illness, more than ‘I am OCD' or 'I am schizophrenic,’” Bea said.

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When these labels are used casually, people may not admit they are experiencing mental health problems.

“The misuse of psychiatric illness perpetuates stigmas and makes people less willing to talk about issues and seek help,” Pedersen said.

The stigma is often why people don't seek treatment, said Patrick Corrigan, distinguished professor of psychology at Illinois Technical Institute and head of the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment.

While being careful about the terms we use, it's equally important to be open about mental illness. People feel less stigma toward people with mental health problems the more they interact with people experiencing them, said Corrigan.

“Putting a focus on language really makes it look a lot easier than it is,” Corrigan said. “Changing stigma is a lot harder and a lot bigger than that.”

Having conversations about mental health led by people living with conditions can be a powerful way in helping people feel less misinformed and scared about them.

“The degree to which people come out with their mental illness will really tear down stigma,” Corrigan said.

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