Language matters – Does everybody have mental illness?

“It’s my OCD.”

“She’s so bipolar.”

“He’s depressed.”

Photo by Alexander Dummer on

Does it ever seem like everybody nowadays has some sort of mental illness? Behaviours we find uncomfortable somehow explained by the latest acronym? They all have anxiety. Who doesn’t have depression?

That’s because everyone does have anxiety. Or at least, feelings of anxiety. And the same goes with depression. Anxiety has evolved inside of humans to serve vital functions. To be afraid of the lion stalking in the night. To think that standing precariously on the edge of a cliff might not be a good idea. Today, anxiety makes us on time for work. It helps us meet deadlines. Yes, it sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable, but can you imagine humans, without any anxiety? Not a society I want to live in.

Not everybody has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or Major Depressive Disorder. These are mental illnesses; they are defined by criteria contained within a manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSM-5). What makes these disorders different from anxiety, and sadness (colloquially known as depression nowadays)? They are pervasive in people’s lives and cause difficulties in functioning.

Mental health awareness is amazing and the reduce the stigma campaign has done wonders for mental health research and support for those suffering from mental illness. A side effect of this campaign has been the increasing use of psychiatric terminology in common speech, resulting in confusion between what a physician means when they use certain terms, or when a term is used on Instagram. This has always happened – the word “paranoid” being a great example – but we are seeing it happen at an increased rate due to social media.

The message? We all have anxiety, sadness, and rigid behaviours (often misdefined as OCD). It’s normal. Those traits probably make you stronger, to some degree. The presence of those features does not mean you have a mental illness. If you are worried you have a mental illness, you should see your doctor. They can often help.


Editor’s note: Mental illness is very real and very debilitating. But the stigma remains. Throughout my career I’ve worked with people from all walks of life, mental health skeptics included, and I’ve come to appreciate that at least some of their frustration comes from the fact that seemingly “normal,” well people are endorsing having mental illness. I think what they are describing is a good example of why language matters, so hopefully this can help!


Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

7 thoughts on “Language matters – Does everybody have mental illness?

  1. One day we’ll be able to see mental health and the variety of experiences people have as just that: experiences. Sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, sometimes a mix of both. But until that day, labels will still plague us, and people will continue to mis-use them. I mean, with things like “attenuated psychosis syndrome” trying to weave their way into the DSM-5, it won’t be long until breathing at an inappropriate rate is a disorder lol. I’m all for a reduction in mental health stigma. But we have a lot of perspectives that need tweaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that everyone suffers from anxiety and depression from time to time, it is hard to know exactly where to draw the line between normal and a medical condition. Some of us are severe enough to no doubt be outside the norm, but I would imagine a great deal of people fall somewhere between normal and mild to moderate mental health conditions.


  3. Reblogged this on From Darkness into the Light and commented:

    Hi Dr Barron

    Thanks for the follow *, as the reason I write is to share.
    * (Though my family and close friends say it would be far more entertaining with a video-camera # in “real life”, rather than in cyberspace!)

    # By the way, do they still make them in today’s ever-faster changing world..or is it all done with mobile phones?

    (get with the times now,”luddite”* c – it should be a smart phone)

    * or so I was often called by my “my techno-geek” friend, Bill (“the gonk”)

    “total non-techno” c (who doesn’t possess a mobile phone, after a rather eventful’ experience some years back, whilst trying to walk, talk and chew gum at the same time)

    Who says men can’t multi-task!

    Kind regards and all the best with your blog


    “You will do foolish things…but do them with enthusiasm.”
    – Colette

    Best wishes from the First City to see the sun (in summer) …and we’re also the first to see the sunset and the stars (in winter-time)
    “I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”

    Liked by 1 person

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