Over the past decade, we have seen more people talk about their mental illness and mental health disorders in public. What used to be such a taboo topic, is now discussed widely – from private conversations to social media platforms to news channels. Psychological terms such as depression, anxiety, and panic attack are used more commonly today. Compared to the past, more people are now aware of the meaning those words convey. This situation is also influenced by numerous movies and films, circulating their themes around mental health issues. While it is uplifting that there is an increased awareness of mental health illness as shown by seemingly improved public knowledge of complicated psychological terms, how can we be sure that people really understand the meaning of the words lightly thrown in their conversations?
Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear at least one person saying sentences like:
"I am so depressed today."
"Sorry if I am a clean freak, I have OCD."
This phenomenon of using such complex terms without fully understanding the meaning of the word shows that there is a significant difference between awareness and understanding. While we applaud the effort being put in to end the stigma surrounding mental health, the public seems to forget that the important part of raising awareness is to first understand mental health problems instead of misusing the words in conversations. This phenomenon also encourages people to use those words inaccurately in everyday conversation. I believe some people would want to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. However, this could lead to oversimplification of the complexities of these conditions.
For instance, using the word "depressed" instead of "sad" to describe an emotional state characterized by a deep sense of unhappiness, sorrow, or emotional pain when one is not actually experiencing clinical depression. This could undermine mental health conditions like depression. It is important to remember that depression isn't just a fleeting sadness; it's a complex and debilitating mental health issue that requires empathy and understanding. It might also downplay the experiences of individuals who struggle with depression. One takeaway from this, is that one should always be sensitive towards those who have been diagnosed with clinical depression, and should avoid casual or inappropriate use of the term.
Another explanation of this phenomenon is the trivialization of mental health issues in the media. These complex and serious conditions are often portrayed in a dismissive manner, reducing them to mere plot devices or character quirks with no intention to raise awareness or provide any educational value on dealing with these conditions. This could have detrimental effects on how the audience perceives the severity and impact of mental health challenges. For example, in some TV shows or movies, characters with mental health conditions are often used solely for comic relief. As an example, characters with bipolar disorder may be portrayed as unpredictable and erratic with their mood swings exaggerated for comedic effect. This can reinforce the stereotype that people with bipolar disorder are simply "crazy" or "wild," overlooking the complexities and challenges that they face.
When the media portrays mental health conditions in a trivial or humorous manner through favorite characters, it can inadvertently reinforce the normalization of using certain terms casually or inappropriately. For instance, characters with mental health conditions portrayed as quirky or eccentric may lead some viewers to perceive mental health challenges as mere personality quirks rather than genuine medical conditions. This can contribute to the misunderstanding of these disorders.
Another consequence of the trivialization of mental illness and mental health disorders is the self-diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Several videos on Tiktok display content where people read one article and assume that they have ADHD or autism. Some would even base their diagnosis on a TikTok video. When in reality, diagnosing conditions like ADHD or ASD is a complex process that involves comprehensive assessments conducted by qualified healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, or neurologists. When individuals self-diagnose based on social media content, they might be influenced by confirmation bias, where they interpret information in a way that supports their preconceived notions. This can lead to inaccurate conclusions.
Furthermore, with media influence, I believe that media portrayals of characters like ADHD can highlight certain traits or characteristics that may be perceived as unique or interesting. This can pique an individual's curiosity and lead them to wonder if they share similar traits, hence leading to self-diagnosis of ADHD and other mental health issues. As much as we applaud the growing awareness of mental health issues, the growing number of teens turning to social platforms such as Instagram and TikTok for guidance and resources is concerning. Self-diagnosing and mislabeling of mental illness and mental health disorders could make them feel isolated, and it might be counterproductive for them to get the help that they need.
To conclude, it is crucial for us to increase our understanding of psychological terms and reduce the misuse of these terms. Media outlets should be encouraged to responsibly depict mental illness and mental health disorders. This could potentially highlight the importance of accurate and sensitive portrayals in reducing mental health stigma. The public should also seek reliable and evidence-based resources when navigating issues about mental health. Individuals should also need to learn to properly evaluate media portrayals of mental health. Instead of assuming and believing, they should question the stereotypes and inaccuracies in media depictions.
Amirah Mardhiah Abu Bakar
Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23