The richness of the English language with the word play we can create around it is a joy. But when we lose sight of the true meaning behind these words, we can cause great misunderstanding and, in some examples, pain and suffering and this is certainly true of words such as depression, stress and anxiety.
Many of us use words such as starving and freezing with two contexts and we all understand the separation. We know that missing lunch and saying you are starving does not correlate to an African child dying of malnutrition. Just as when we are caught in a cold wind in just a t-shirt we might say we are freezing, but realise that the cold we feel has nothing to do with frost bite and hypothermia.
Where the examples become potentially damaging, is with the use of words such as depression, anxiety and stress. The reason being that many people do not realise that they operate in a similar way to the above words. As such, using them without knowledge of the difference helps to perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health. To be clear I do not propose that we stop using such words except for when someone has been diagnosed with a condition, but instead that we learn and understand the differences between the two.
FEELING DEPRESSED Vs BEING DEPRESSED
Saying you are depressed after some bad news, feeling low for a few days etc is not akin to suffering from depression. Someone who is actually starving has many more symptoms than feeling hungry, and someone diagnosed with clinical depression is going through a lot more than simply feeling low. They will have some or all of the following:
- Lost interest in things they love
- Damaged ability to sleep
- Either over or under eat
- Have feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Lost energy
- Feeling helpless and hopeless
If someone is feeling sad or low, then yes perhaps they can be told to get over it, think happy thoughts etc. This sentiment however is damaging in the face of clinical depression, being likely to make the individual feel more isolated, misunderstood and useless.
The same can be said of feeling anxious over a project Vs suffering from anxiety. Or being stressed over a deadline at work VS suffering from long term stress. They are very different beasts and our views on them ought to be very different as well.
WHERE’S THE LINE?
There is a clear difference between the two uses of the words ‘starving’ and ‘freezing’. However, there is also a sliding scale where someone crosses the line from being hungry to actually starving, cold to actually freezing to death. With words surrounding mental health, it can be far harder to identify where someone is on this scale. This ambiguity, along with the confused understanding of the meaning behind the words is a dangerous combination.
Knowing when someone has crossed the line to having a medical condition and knowing exactly where that line is, is best left to the professionals. Perhaps we think twice next time someone says they suffer from depression, anxiety or stress, as the meaning they are using may be different to the one you are assuming.