The way that people talk about mental health is changing. For a long time, Mental illness was something that was shoved under the carpet, for fear of what effect acknowledging it or sharing thoughts on it, would have. These days, conversation about mental illness is everywhere. Increased awareness of mental illness through education and promotion has meant that good or bad, people are talking about their experiences and/or views of the issues that surround it.
As with many other areas of conversation, the recent prominence of social media has further facilitated the discussion on mental health. People regularly take to all kinds of social media outlets including Twitter, Facebook, and other internet forums, to express themselves. In turn, language that was once stigmatized has become every day. People now regularly use these forums to talk about Anxiety, Depression, Body-Image, and a whole host of psychological disorders and topical issues. While this reduction in stigma and increase in awareness is an extremely positive and healthy development, one wonders if such acceptance and familiarity is in some circumstances, oversimplifying the experience of living with a mental illness.
Phrases such as “That’s so OCD”, or “I’m so depressed” are often used in both social media and real life settings. More often than not, these phrases are used in the incorrect context, by individuals who are not experiencing symptoms of OCD or depression. For instance describing someone who likes to keep their desk tidy’s behaviour as OCD, when they are more than likely just a tidy person, is simplifying what it means to be living with OCD. OCD is an extremely debilitating psychological disorder that impairs on how an individual performs in many aspects of their lives. It does not describe someone with a slight tendency to be perfectionistic or overly-organized.
Researchers have come to study this observation and the effect that it has on how we perceive mental illness. One recent study which was carried out by Racelle Pavelko and Jessica Gall-Myrick from Indiana University, explored the effects that gender and frame of speaking about OCD, have on social media user’s perceptions of disease severity, their desired social distance from individuals with OCD and their likelihood of liking or identifying with that person. They explained that OCD in particular has become trivialized on social media due to a number of reasons, including because of the way that the media often portrays it’s symptoms as nonsensical and comical. In truth, an individual with OCD often understands that their behaviors are irrational, but they feel compelled to act in a certain way in order to manage the destructive and impulsive thoughts or obsessions that fill their mind on a daily basis.
In order to explore these effects, Pavelko and Gall-Myrick designed an experimental study whereby they developed a number of fake twitter profiles, manipulating gender and the way that each individual spoke about OCD in their twitter posts. In other words, they developed male and female profiles that either contained posts that were framed in a clinical manner e.g. “Don’t think I’ve made any progress yet with the cognitive behavioral therapy, but I’m not giving up hope yet. #livingwithOCD”, a trivial manner e.g. ‘‘Can’t stand all these crazy perfectionist people in my office. Not impressed that your file folders are alphabetized. #ThatsSoOCD.’’, or a mixed manner that contained both clinical and trivial language. Participants were then asked to respond to a number of questionnaires following their exposure to one of the profiles.
Pavelko and Gall-Myrick made a number of interesting findings. What they found was that while the type of language used did not affect people’s overall perceptions of the disease, people generally liked the profiles with the clinically descriptive language better than the trivial or mixed profiles. Females and people with experience of OCD and/or mental illness identified with the OCD profiles to a higher degree than males or people without such experience. The latter findings highlight the role that gender and past experience of mental health difficulties have in how in we perceive mental health discussion online –these groups may be generally more open to talk about such issues, may be more informed and may relate better to the struggles of someone suffering with OCD.
The former finding demonstrating a distinct preference for the clinical language profiles is particularly interesting as it illustrates that trivialization of mental health content may not have the desired effect that social media users expect. By over-simplifying and disregarding the seriousness of OCD and other mental health problems, through jokes or out of context comments, social media users may actually be impacting negatively on their online presence and communication. If social media users identify better with someone who speaks candidly and appropriately about their experiences with OCD, than someone who uses the term OCD too readily and improperly, then it is clear that acceptance and understanding of mental health problems is becoming more common. This finding also reflects that even though we are moving away from stigmatization of mental health problems, this new acceptance incorporates a level of respect for the experience of living with a psychological disorder.
While it is certain that the way we talk about mental health problems is not yet the way that it should be, the conversation is definitely going in the right direction. This is extremely encouraging for people with mental health difficulties such as OCD, who want to use online forums to communicate their feelings and gain support in the process. By speaking openly and appropriately online about such issues, we can promote greater awareness of what is to be OCD, or depressed, or anxious, and therefore encourage people to not suffer in silence and to come forward with their issues, which is greater for everyone in the long term.
You can find Pavelko and Gall-Myrick’s (2015) paper here:
International OCD foundation: Great links to info and support services for OCD
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.