Mental Illnesses as Adjectives


Jessica Brokenshire, BSW, MSW Candidate


Using mental illnesses as adjectives has become common practice in our society. We’ve all heard – or said – something along the lines of “they’re so bipolar” or “I’m so OCD”. Sometimes when things such as this become so normalized that we don’t understand why it’s not ok to say. There are many reasons why these phrases are inappropriate. To name a few, it stigmatizes those who have an actual diagnosis, makes those who have the diagnosis feel ostracized, and creates a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” illnesses. These topics will be expanded upon within this article.

  1. Using mental illnesses as adjectives takes away from the seriousness of true mental illnesses.

Using this type of language and metaphors in daily conversations normalizes mental illnesses. At first that sounds like a good thing, however it only highlights and normalizes pieces of the disorder. This takes away from understanding the depth of the symptoms experienced by those who are actually diagnosed. Symptoms of mental illnesses are severe and life altering. One example that stands out in my mind is anxiety and panic attacks.

Every one of us experience nervousness, more often associated with high pressure situations such as public speaking or taking an exam. However, an anxiety disorder is categorized by the intensity and frequency of the symptoms, as well as the disruption of daily functioning. Symptoms of anxiety disorders include, but are not limited to, heavy breathing (hyperventilation), muscle tension, trembling, increased heart rate, nausea, and sometimes fainting. Often times, those who are experiencing a panic attack for the first time mistake it for a heart attack.

When an individual claims to have a panic attack for mundane things, such as forgetting their assignment that was due or forgetting where they put their keys, it minimizes the reality than many individuals face with often no external trigger. Normalizing this behavior takes away the seriousness of a true panic attack, making others feel as though those who express experiencing a panic attack is over exaggerating or is just experiencing nervousness.

When an individual who is sad for a short period of time due to an external stimuli, such as a break-up, getting a bad grade, or your friends making plans without you, the term is not depressed. The correct term is sad, upset, sorrowful, down, or the many other synonyms you can use. Depression is a long term, severe, deep rooted feeling of hopelessness. This feeling is frequently accompanied by a feeling of emptiness, inability to enjoy activities that you once enjoyed, sleeping too much or too little, gaining or losing weight, and sometimes suicidal ideation. Mixing the two up can be detrimental in making the individual with depression feel inadequate and different in a negative way.

  1. “Good” and “Bad” Mental Illnesses

When mental health diagnoses are appropriated in every day vernacular, there becomes a dichotomy of good and bad. This shows through in the use of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in particular, usually meaning that an individual is neat or tidy. Opposing that, people use Bipolar Disorder to describe an individual who is “moody” or unpredictable, often used to describe those that the individual dislikes. This creates a divide among the community as to which diagnosis is acceptable and which is not. Individuals who have classified “bad” disorders often feel ostracized and further stigmatized.

  1. Individuals are discouraged from opening up or seeking help

When individuals hear their mental health symptoms used as jokes, they can feel invalidated. When they feel as though these symptoms are erroneous, they are less likely to seek help, be it from friends, family, and especially mental health professionals.

  1. People are people, not their diagnoses

Categorizing individuals based on their mundane “symptoms” leads mentally ill individuals to feel as though they are categorized the same. Being seen only as pieces of your mental illness can feel dehumanizing and embarrassing. Individuals with serious mental health symptoms can feel as though they need to hide their symptoms (which is exhausting) in order to be seen as an individual and not as their disorder.

  1. Misinformation is spread

Mental health is one of the most stigmatized subjects to this day, in part due to the misuse of discussion surrounding mental health. Using diagnoses as adjectives creates an environment in which misinformation is spread through socialization. At this point in time we, as a society, should be working toward the destigmatization of the symptoms as well as seeking professional and personal assistance.



The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 43.8 million individuals – nearly 19% of the population – experience mental illnesses within one year. That means that when you appropriate the use of mental illnesses, you could be insulting the very severe reality of 1 in 5 of your friends. Be careful about the terms you use to describe behaviors. Work on expanding your vocabulary in order to do so.