Political correctness wields undoubted power in today’s world, as people are compelled more than ever to decide whether insulating everyone from so-called “bad words” is worth sacrificing certain forms of speech. We want people to feel safe, and empathized with, but we also want to say what we want to say.
People tend to think that in relying too much on preserving political correctness, we’ll lose our sense of humor, our irreverence. In one sense, this camp is right. A world hell-bent on sensitivity may indeed crumble under the pressure of taking itself too seriously. But while lawyer jokes and the occasional stereotype may inject some levity into our lives, some medical terminology deserve a little more respect — especially if we’re ever to break their damaging stigmas.
It’s been estimated that 17 percent of the U.S. population will experience a depressive episode at some point in their lives. That’s almost one in five people, yet the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental illness has never been greater. Too few understand that Major Depressive Disorder is a medley of social, chemical, and environmental factors that, working together, profoundly impair someone’s mental health.
They aren’t sad. Yet words like “depressed and “depressing,” used to describe a movie, piece of music, or recent conversation, paint the experience as little more than a mood-killer. People who are depressed aren’t wet blankets; they’re sick in the same way anorexics and Alzheimer’s patients are sick.
People with mental disabilities used to be called “retarded,” and up until the most recent addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) relabeling it as “intellectual developmental disorder,” the formal diagnosis was mental retardation. Despite the name change, “retarded” stuck. And today it’s used to describe things and people that are of poor quality, lacking common sense, cheaply made, or generally unfavorable.
Words have the annoying quality of outgrowing their usefulness. We have the natural tendency to grow comfortable with certain words being around, like a reassuring elder that seems to have things all figured out. We bristle when words are taken out of usage, so we struggle to keep them around, whether they have meaning or not.
Colloquial usage of schizophrenia employs it wrongly — there’s little other way of saying it. Many people think the illness is synonymous with dual personalities, a person jumping between aliases that can’t get either story straight. Metaphorical use of the illness stays faithful to this assumption, as writers and their writing are considered “schizophrenic” if the plot is erratic.
Schizophrenic has come to mean “volatile,” “contradictory,” “frazzled,” in numerous scenarios that take place day-to-day. In truth, schizophrenia involves paranoia, a lack of emotion, disorganized thinking, and delusions. Despite, or perhaps because of, the low prevalence rate — 0.3 to 0.7 percent of the general population — the term is one of the most commonly used, yet misunderstood terms in medicine.
Somewhere between 2.3 and 4.4 percent of the population suffers from paranoid personality disorder — an illness characterized by heavy anxiety and fear, often to the extent that the person has delusions. Sufferers make false accusations and generally distrust others, distinct from a phobia, which carry no blame.
But common usage takes paranoia and assigns it a more banal meaning. We’re paranoid we left the oven on, or that we might have sent a scandalous email to the wrong person. We get so used to the term, in other words, that we forget how serious it can be — if we ever took the time to find out in the first place.
Speak Deliberately, Not Because of Convenience
In reality, the ability to reclaim clinical terms should empower us. We give words meaning, which means we have the power to designate a thing’s importance by what we call it. Our labels should be careful, and used deliberately, not because it’s convenient or hyperbolic or what we’re used to.
We don’t have to needlessly censor ourselves — in dark times, sometimes dark humor is all we have — but working overtime isn’t the same as pulling double duty. Some words are simply overqualified for everyday speak. So let’s keep them where they belong.