How many times have you heard a friend at school or on social media talk about the “mental breakdown” they had last night over a project, or the “panic attack” when they realized they didn’t submit an assignment, or how they were “really depressed” or “having really bad anxiety”?

Chances are we all know someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness like depression, anxiety or panic attacks. But using these terms to describe minor, everyday feelings that all of us may go through from time to time, may have a severe and unintended impact on people who actually do suffer from these disorders.

Let’s define terms:
  • Depression is a mood disorder where someone is sad or irritable much of the day, even when there may not be a reason to feel this way. It includes a reduced interest in activities and events that you once enjoyed, and it includes five or more symptoms that last for two weeks or longer.
  • A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.
  • A mental breakdown or a nervous breakdown describes a period of intense mental distress during which someone is unable to function in everyday life.

We all can have occasional ups and downs and periods of intense emotions – especially now when the world feels so different. But that is not the same thing as a diagnosed mental illness. These disorders are real, they can be long lasting and they don’t just “go away” after a few minutes. Feeling depressed or panicky and even feeling like you are breaking down over something in the moment is very real and the feelings are valid, but this is not the same thing as a mood disorder.

Today as we all are staying home to protect our physical health, there is a greater awareness of how important it is to take care of our mental health and express how we are feeling. But words matter, so let’s expand our feeling vocabulary and carefully choose the words we use to express how we feel. Throwing around actual disorders to describe our feelings can unintentionally have effects that are invisible, but still harmful, to those that do suffer from these disorders.

There is a lot of stigma around mental illness due to lack of education and stigma makes it harder for people who struggle to come forward and get help. I know teens who struggle with mental illness sometimes feel like nobody understands or can sympathize with what they are going through. Our words can heal or our words can unintentionally alienate others.

So let’s choose our words carefully – we can change the way the world views mental health if we are mindful of the words we use to describe our feelings.

Everyone struggles at some point and we all deserve to reach out for help or support when needed. Sometimes, we just need a refresher or a synonym like “sad” or “nervous” to avoid misusing a term. I hope that in the near future all kids will have the tools to properly express how they feel without doing something that is indirectly hurtful. We can all be a part of this change and it starts by even lightly checking in with your friends and validating their experience – and if they do actually suffer from a mental illness, we should be there to support and listen to them. These small actions are extremely important steps in helping break down the stigma around mental health issues.

Author: Claire Teresa Galavotti, Junior at St. Ignatius Prep School, Chicago, IL