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The Trend of Misusing Clinical Psychological Terms on Social Media

While social media has played a major role in increasing mental health awareness, there has been a concurrent trend of misuse of clinical terms in short video content, limiting the elaborate delineation of these layered concepts. Terms like “OCD,” “bipolar,” “narcissistic,” or “ADHD” are being casually used to describe common behaviours, diminishing the weight of the terms and experiences of people who actually have these mental disorders. Numerous other clinical terms such as, “trauma,” “gaslighting,” and more are applied in wrong contexts. It is crucial to accurately understand the meaning of psychological terms to foster empathic and healthy dialogue around mental health.

In the fast-paced realm of social media, short videos, typically lasting one minute, have become the major form of content consumed by users. Be it Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts, they dominate our screens, making it impossible to escape them. It is very difficult to click away from these quick dopamine-inducing videos. Amidst the plethora of content, there are widespread educational videos, but also a concerning amount of ‘trendy’ videos that actually spread misinformation. One such example of this is the usage and portrayal of psychological terms. In our effort to have open conversations about mental health, have we accidentally turned these terms into mere buzzwords, diminished their seriousness and gravitated away from their intended clinical contexts?

Credits: TikTok Lobby @ YouTube

What does this mean for our perception of them, as well as the disorders and symptomatic behaviours they are meant to help diagnose? Social media has undoubtedly helped in spreading awareness about mental health, but as more digital creators make these educational videos, clinical psychological terms are being thrown around, more casually, which leads to pathologizing behaviour and turning lived experiences into trends. Language is powerful, and misapplication of words can lead to misconceptions, shaping how we view ourselves and others.

It has been observed that people who are feeling “OCD” or “bipolar” aren’t aware of the actual connotation of what they’re saying. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder experience uncontrollable and recurring thoughts or fears, leading to repetitive behaviours that cause distress or anxiety on a regular basis, interfering with daily life. While OCD may involve obsessive cleanliness, it does not mean that the term can be casually used to describe individuals who merely value cleanliness. People with bipolar disorder experience extreme mood swings, episodes of mania or hypomania, and depression. Common mood fluctuations aren’t “bipolar,” and using the term as such is offensive to those who actually have the disorder. Another term that is used loosely on social media to label people if they exhibit any self-centred behaviour is “narcissist.” This diminishes the seriousness of the term, which refers to a personality disorder in which the person has an unreasonably high sense of their own importance, constantly requires attention and admiration, and lacks empathy. As the misuse of this term contributes to its stigmatisation, it strips away its clinical significance and can impact those who have NPD, discouraging them from recognising or seeking help for genuine mental health concerns.

Social media has obfuscated the meanings of psychological terms. They aren’t being used in their actual contexts. “Intrusive Thoughts” is another popular term these days. “Impulsive” is what people actually mean, proving the importance of making the distinction between the two terms. The former means unwanted and unpleasant thoughts that cause significant discomfort or anxiety, while the latter means a sudden urge or desire that one may act on without thinking about the consequences. Intrusive has been interchangeably used with “impulsive” on social media, which has contributed to a misunderstanding of the psychological concept, leading to its trivialisation. Another popular term that is extensively misused is “trauma.” According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), trauma is an emotional or physical response to one or more physically harmful or life-threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on your mental and physical well-being. It is characterised by anxiety, shock, denial, unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and physical symptoms. It is not one’s parents making one eat vegetables during their childhood. The term is widely applied to any unpleasant experience, diminishing its actual meaning and implications.

Some other clinically significant terms that are thrown around on social media casually are gaslighting, ADHD, delusion, and more. It is important to be aware of the implications of what one says in daily life, to educate ourselves on the issue, and to contribute towards decreasing the stigmatisation of mental health by using the correct terms in the correct contexts, therefore creating a healthy space for it.

This misapplication of clinical terms may lead to oversimplification of elaborate layered concepts to fit the constraints of communication on social media, the attribution of common feelings of stress or sadness to clinical terms without consultation with mental health professionals, and the glamorisation of certain mental illnesses. These misconceptions can be carried into conversations, perpetuating a cycle of misunderstandings.

Picking up popular terms from social media and using them in real life without knowing their actual meaning has become a widespread phenomenon, thus exhibiting the impact of social media on everyday speech. It is crucial to understand the context of these terms and unlearn this habit to give validity to psychological terms. The decrease in stigmatisation of mental health observed in recent years should go hand in hand with giving equal importance to its vocabulary. It’s important to spread awareness and correct others if you see them misusing such terms. A conscious effort to understand the nuances of mental health can contribute to a more informed, empathic, and inclusive online and offline environment.

Sidra Aman is a student pursuing English Hons. from Jamia Millia Islamia

Edited by: Gunjit Verma

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Written by Sidra Aman

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