During the pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety nearly doubled. As such, mental health evolved from something often swept under the rug to a topic discussed more openly. Unfortunately, the rise in mental health awareness produced an unintended consequence.
Words like trauma, trigger and PTSD now appear in everyday conversation. Yet communicators, friends and family who have not dealt with mental health issues firsthand may misunderstand and misuse these terms.
As communicators, we know words matter. When words are used casually, they lose their impact. To have credibility with employees, journalists and the public, communicators must have a solid understanding of this aspect of health.
For example, given reporters’ increased interest in covering wellbeing, PR pros can’t effectively pitch stories without knowledge of mental health vocabulary.
Moreover, the issue goes beyond media relations. For example, internal communicators must consider that 76 percent of workers may have one or more symptoms of a mental disorder, according to Harvard Business Review.
With employee wellness top of mind, it’s important communicators have a foundational understanding of mental health, a trending topic. As mental health could easily arise during a media interview, town hall or panel, communicators should remain educated on the topic and share their knowledge with others.
A common culprit of misuse is exaggeration. You’ve likely heard someone claim a situation triggered them or resulted in PTSD. Sometimes people use anxiety when describing normal stress levels. Depression is used incorrectly when conveying that someone feels sad.
While these terms are appropriate in some instances, many times they are not. Typically, depression and PTSD involve much more than their stereotyped symptoms.
For example, a person diagnosed with depression does not typically just feel upset. He may struggle to get out of bed, experience hopelessness or suffer from suicidal ideation. PTSD affects some 4 percent of people annually and causes symptoms like mistrust, hyper-vigilance and nightmares. It’s unlikely the result of something simple.
Hyperbolizing can be harmless, but when it comes to a severe mental health disorder like PTSD, misusing words can cause pain.
Avoid Correcting But Show Compassion
So, when you hear hyperbolizing in a conversation at work or elsewhere, decide how you can respectfully steer the discussion in a new direction.
In addition, avoid correcting in public those who misuse mental health terms in conversation—it’s neither helpful nor wanted. Instead, lead. Ensure your use of these words is accurate.
Moreover, have compassion for people who misuse mental health terms. Remember that people likely don’t realize they’re misusing words. So, proceed with kindness.
And recall we are in the early stages of speaking openly about mental health. Embarrassing people publicly could result in them and others remaining silent on this important issue.
Given the increasing attention around mental health, as communicators we must have an accurate understanding of mental health terms so we can provide the most effective and inclusive communication counsel to executives and journalists.
While PR pros cannot and should not dictate others’ vocabulary, we can, as noted previously, control ours. Through our conversations at work and beyond, we have the ability to help reverse the trend of misusing psychiatric terms. We can model appropriate use of these words, educate those around us and, by doing so, serve as advocates for mental health issues.
In addition, we exercise influence over the communication vessels we use, whether an internal memo about employee health or a story pitch about anxiety in the workplace.
We can show others the correct use of mental health phrases and encourage them to be open and honest. As we all become more comfortable speaking about mental health, the words we use to do so matter.
Brooke Metz is a senior account executive at Edelman