The semantics of “depression”: the power of word choices

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

That may have worked in the schoolyard at recess, but language has tremendous power, both to communicate and to miscommunicate.  Take the word “depression” for example.

Depression is often used in everyday language to describe an emotion like sadness.  This is a very different creature from major depressive disorder, which can be debilitating and affect almost every aspect of a person’s functioning.  Similarly, bipolar disorder is a whole different can of worms from short-term mood fluctuations.  If people are lightly tossing these words around to describe transient emotional blips, it dilutes the social understanding of these terms and minimizes the experience of those suffering from mental illness.

When we use language that minimizes mental illness, we are likely to propagate stigma.  If we think someone is “just depressed”, the same way we might be if our favourite sports team didn’t win the championship, then we’re more likely to think “they’re just not trying hard enough”, and they could feel better if they would “just get over it already”.  But in reality, we’re not comparing apples and apples, we’re comparing mice and elephants.

Depression is the example that resonates the most with me, since it’s the illness that I have, but there are many other examples, many of which are pejorative.  “Psycho.”  “Crazy.”  Or perhaps using the word “suicidal” to describe feeling disappointed over some minor event.  People may be described as “schizophrenic” as if that defines who they are as a person.

We could all do well to reflect a bit on the language we choose to use and what that might mean for those around us.  Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can wound me far deeper.

 

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