Skip links

“Depressed” or Just Sad? The Language of Mental Health

Now more than ever, mental health and therapy have become more mainstream through social media, film, and a variety of other media outlets. You may see people talking about the importance of taking care of your mental health on podcasts or characters in movies attending therapy to manage day-to-day life. This recent popularization has also fueled the inaccurate use of mental health vocabulary and has distorted what having a mental health disorder is really like. This glamorization of mental health has caused people to throw around phrases such as “I’m so bipolar” when they have not been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder by a mental health professional. You may even see people self-diagnosing themselves with depression because the lines have been blurred between sadness and Major Depressive Disorder. While neither of these statements were intentionally harmful, they minimize the experiences of the people who do cope with these mental health disorders. This is often happening due to a lack of understanding of certain terminology. This of course is not an exhaustive list, however, I wanted to highlight some common terms that are frequently used inaccurately and possible alternatives. This is a way to spread awareness and be sure that we are being responsible with highlighting emotional health and mental health disorders. 

RELATED: Session 196: Understanding Complex PTSD

Bipolar Disorder 

People often use “bipolar” as a blanket phrase to describe their ups and downs or mood swings. I will never forget the tweets and reactions when Dr. Andrew Deluca from Grey’s Anatomy was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (hey, Grey’s fans). I’ve seen things such as “Deluca is crazy” or “He’s losing it”, when in fact he was dealing with an undiagnosed mental health disorder. Bipolar Disorder is more than a fluctuation in your mood.  It can also affect your sleeping patterns, your social relationships, and your ability to think clearly. Contrary to what people may think or what shows may display, people who are clinically diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder do not just fluctuate moods all day. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition, but it can be managed with psychotherapy and medication. It is important to not use “bipolar” as an adjective to describe your mood swings or someone else’s because it diminishes what people who are actually diagnosed manage day today. Instead, if you find you are having mood swings, consult with your primary care doctor or a mental health professional so that you can label it what it may really be: hormones, stress, or perhaps symptoms from a mental health disorder. 

RELATED: Session 197: ADHD Diagnosis Later In Life

Major Depressive Disorder

Feeling low or having moments of sadness is a natural part of life, especially when difficult life changes are taking place such as loss of a loved one or the ending of a relationship. However, it’s important to not confuse bouts of sadness with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Depression is more than just sadness. MDD or clinical depression is persistent and intense feelings of sadness for two weeks or more. In addition, symptoms may consist of irritability, change in appetite, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and even thoughts of self-harm or suicide. MDD severely impacts a person’s daily functioning. If you are feeling sad, instead of saying you have depression, an alternative would be to say you’re been feeling down or low. If these feelings are persistent, consider consulting with a professional. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The word narcissist or narcissism is another label that comes to mind that is commonly inaccurately used. It is often thrown around social media to describe problematic exes, friends, or even parents. The internet has branded narcissists as a catchy phrase to label someone who is into themselves or exhibits less than desirable behavior. Although a person diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) has traits that consist of an inflated sense of importance and lack of emotional empathy, research shows that behind these behaviors are a person who is really masking their vulnerability and self-esteem issues. Society doesn’t often look at the deeper issues behind the undesirable behaviors or really know what the disorder encompasses besides what is shown in the media. With all mental health and personality disorders, there is certain criterion that must be met in order to be diagnosed.\If you’re not sure if someone is diagnosed with NPD, it’s better to stick with common phrases to describe their behaviors such as rude, self-absorbed, or obnoxious. 

RELATED: The Complexities of “Trauma” and How to Manage Triggers


Trauma is characterized as a deeply disturbing and distressing experience. Many of us have experienced events throughout our lives that were traumatic such as the death of a loved one, developed a serious medical condition, or experienced a natural disaster to name a few. Nevertheless, trauma has become a buzzword and not in a “let’s spread awareness” type of way.  It has become glamorized in a way that diminishes people who have actually experienced a traumatic event and is coping with the aftermath. There are memes and tweets where trauma is being used to describe an event that upset them but was not traumatic. It is important to be responsible with the words you are using. An alternative to saying something was traumatic or trauma might be to describe it as stressful or tense. 

All this to say, words mean things. No matter how harmless they seem, words affect yours and other’s livelihood.


Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here