How Words Lose Their Meanings 

By Julia Torres 

Working with kids at a hospital is an incredible experience–but it’s also heart-wrenching. One of our patients, who is around twelve years old, expressed his frustration in how his friends at school frequently used “cancer” as a casual term on social media and threw the word around as a joke in conversation. As a child who actually experiences the physical trials of cancer, this colloquial use of it diminished his hardship; he thought these cancer comments equated his deadly condition to the common cold.

I bring this up because I see the same level of disregard for words and their meanings at UCLA. Around campus, I often overhear students talking about how they are more anxious or depressed than each other as if it is some sort of twisted competition. Not only have we normalized mental illness: we’re minimizing the incessant symptoms people with mental illnesses face every day, and we use these disorders as a source of validation from our peers within the hustle culture we uphold as UCLA students. 

Before we get any further, I’d like to quickly point us to the DSM-5, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as the only source that should be used to define mental illnesses. Crucial conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder (among others) should not be self-diagnosed due to a temporary feeling, but rather rooted in the tangible product of professionals. 

The DSM-5 outlines thresholds of hyper-specific criteria required for a patient to be professionally diagnosed with a mental illness; nevertheless, the rate of newly diagnosed mental disorders continues to steadily increase. A study by Johns Hopkins states that 26% of adults in America are diagnosed with a mental health disorder in a given year, a significantly higher rate than in previous years. 

As a society, we’ve clearly expanded our awareness surrounding mental illness. But we’ve also developed an overwhelming hyperfixation on these illnesses. Sadly, this harmful glamorization permeates our campus, too; mental health evolves into a personality type, an identity marker, in the lives of students on campus. This toxic competition also contributes to the rising levels of diagnoses: as “instability” becomes the forefront of our interactions with others, it becomes easier for students to want to fit in and conclude that any intense emotions are due to chemical imbalances instead of a natural range of human emotion.

As such, we now require a professional diagnosis to validate healthy human emotion. Being sad does not make you depressed; feeling anxious does not mean you suffer from chronic anxiety; skipping one meal due to workload does not mean you have an eating disorder; rapid mood fluctuation does not mean you are bipolar. Most of these feelings simply embody what it means to be human–we react to our circumstances, something that never guarantees stability. 

I’d like to emphasize that all human emotions are valid. The overwhelming orbit of emotion is doubtlessly trying, and I sincerely do not wish to denigrate this fact. But strong (and natural) emotions should not be confused with a medical diagnosis. Our colloquial self-diagnosis will only belittle an experience that is not ours to claim. We must make sure that we are correctly and precisely communicating our feelings, and consciously veer away from terms that have additional meanings and implications. 

Most importantly (and urgently), this manner of speaking has seeped into the competition culture on campus. It has become the norm to want to “out do” our peers in terms of grades, extracurriculars, and even our social lives; this malignant competition triggers a toxic battle where we fight over claiming the worst mental health struggle. We’ve made it “cool” to not be mentally stable, and we’ve become unable to healthily address our issues. We’ve gotten to a point in which mental illness is so trendy that we often best connect with our peers by talking about our shared feelings of extreme levels of stress or sadness. 

When we describe our feelings, especially when addressing other students on campus, we should aim to be accurate in our wording to avoid diminishing the gravity of mental illness through our normalized usage. For those who live with them, mental disorders are not something one chooses to have. As we continue to use these terms in casual conversation, our societal understanding of mental disorders begins to diminish, along with their struggles; ultimately, this will (and has) resulted in a “get over it” perspective instead of encouraging proper treatment.  

Being a volunteer at the hospital, especially one who interacts with cancer patients, changed my perspective on illnesses. I saw the unruly time patients spent in chemotherapy, as well as the endless poking and prodding they suffered; I never realized how much grief is embedded within the recovery process. It was only after first-handedly watching the mental and physical pain cancer patients experienced that I fully understood the weight that words hold. 

I volunteered at this hospital for four years and my job was to, quite literally, provide emotional support to patients by listening to them. Encouragement plays a large role in recovery, but in order to do this, you have to understand how desperately patients want to get better. Likewise, when approaching mental health, we should not use these conditions as something desirable, but point people back to proper treatment. 

Ultimately, I have promised myself to validate the struggle of those who suffer from mental disorders by not using these loaded terms in casual conversation to “fit in”; I invite you to do the same.

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