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'She's OCD!' 'He's Schizo!' How Misused Health Lingo Can Harm

Our daily health speak is often erroneously peppered with terms like “OCD,” and “sociopath.” And such linguistic mistakes do real damage, experts say.
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Some of the tools of medicine.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

This year, Americans expanded their medical jargon with a smattering of once-exotic words, including the illnesses MERS and enterovirus — plus “contact tracing,” the footwork done to curb Ebola outbreaks.

But our daily health speak remains far more liberally laced with a slew of misapplied psychiatric terms, such as "OCD," "bipolar," "sociopath" and “schizo."

The problem is, experts say, erroneously spewing such behavioral buzzwords creates real damage.

"We misuse (psychiatric terms) all the time and it could be harmful," said Emanuel Maidenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the cognitive behavioral therapy clinic at Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Improperly dropping those sorts of words into conversations only perpetuates an existing stigma surrounding mental illnesses and vilifies certain forms of conduct that many people dislike or just find disconcerting, he added.

"These labels give a false simplicity to human behavior. Something very complex boils down to (a generic, psychiatric label)," says Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University. "But human behavior is not well captured by these labels."

The vast majority of folks who live in remarkably well-kept, spotless homes may simply be zealous about order and organization — perfectly normal and not necessarily a sign that they have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Farley said.

Indeed, people diagnosed with OCD experience repetitive thoughts and behaviors, producing extreme anxiety, which can impact their ability to function.

"When people use (psychiatric labels) in daily language, I think it is intended to deliver some sort of emotional context," Maidenberg said. "It says that there is something wrong with you."

Likewise, dubbing a generally moody person as "bipolar" or "schizo" is akin to saying that periodically fickle frames of mind are a clear hint of severe mental illness. In reality, schizophrenia causes people with the condition to experience delusions, hear voices and suffer from extremely disorganized thinking. And by definition, bipolar disorder includes periods of mania, marked by rapid speaking, racing thoughts and inflated self esteem, followed by crushing bouts of depression.

Bipolar disorder "is very different from the day-to-day mood swings that most people experience," said Dr. Charles Reynolds, a professor of geriatric psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "There are very distinct differences between personality traits and (mental illnesses)."

And, folks naturally express their identities in unique, even outlandish ways.

"People can have all sorts of behaviors, and extremes of behaviors," Farley said.

Typically, such quirks fall within the bounds of healthy comportment, even if they stretch social norms.

Some observers may be inclined to designate certain people as "psychopaths" or "sociopaths" — especially if they’ve performed acts that many might consider heinous.

In cases of culturally bad acts, psychiatrists may use the term "antisocial personality disorder," which a spans a slew of diagnostic criteria. According to the Mayo Clinic, antisocial personality behavior can include having "no regard for right and wrong" and no feelings about "the rights, wishes and feelings of others."

But the condition is not a catchall explanation for horrid behavior, experts say.

"People who commit homicide would not necessarily qualify as having an antisocial personality disorder," Reynolds said.

That specific linguistic misunderstanding has been fueled by Hollywood.

Even some of the worst villains — including the Hannibal Lecter character from "The Silence of the Lambs," the Patrick Bateman character in "American Psycho," and the Annie Wilkes character in "Misery" — don’t fall into this diagnosis, according to a study published in December 2013 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Why wouldn't Lecter fit the psychopath definition? The study's co-author, Samuel Leistedt, told the Boston Globe: "He’s too smart. He’s successful in everything he does ... He’s not physically large, but he’s very powerful. That’s not reality."

While incorrect labeling can deepen the emotional scars of mental illnesses, people likely use these buzzwords as a form of social shorthand and as a way to help them make sense of complex traits, experts said.

"We are pretty familiar with everyday, normal behavior. But when you start getting the variation of normal ... we don’t understand it so well, and it makes us nervous," Farley said.

Even worse, re-stigmatizing people through lazy labeling may scare some folks away from getting needed help, Reynolds said: "The terms denote disorders of the brain … that frequently have good treatment and can lead to good recovery."