To the extent that this further reduces mental health stigma and helps people find the care they need, it is welcome news. If a label makes people feel less alone — or even joyful at having a name to put to their discomfort and a community to identify with, as the actress Rachel Bloom sings of in a musical number about her character getting a borderline personality disorder diagnosis, from the TV comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” — then that, too, is positive.
But there are also some serious downsides to fixating on these labels.
First, there’s a flattening of people’s unique or individual experiences. Just about anything can — and often does — fall under large umbrella terms such as “trauma,” as Parul Sehgal wrote recently in The New Yorker. When we apply a category too broadly, it loses much of its meaning.
“Labeling an individual with a diagnosis can allow them to better understand their situation and access the support services they need to function,” said Emily Johnson, a physician in Colorado Springs who practices at a clinic for adults with cognitive disabilities. “On the other hand, labels can carry stigmas and be constraining, unnecessarily confining people to certain boxes.” And, she added, “if we were to assign a label to all of those individuals, the label would cease to be useful.”
I’ve also noticed that when mental and emotional health labels are used casually, we all too often end up romanticizing mental illness — which, as anyone who has actually experienced it knows, is anything but romantic. In a 2018 essay in The Times, Rhiannon Picton-James wrote about $48 gold necklaces that spelled out “anxiety” and “depression” in trendy italic letters. “The problem with the prettification of mental illness is just how out-of-kilter it is with reality,” she wrote. And she’s right: A necklace that honestly represents these conditions would perhaps instead depict a black hole that sucks the life out of you and interferes with everything you want to be present for. Not so pretty.
I am grateful that O.C.D. was named and well understood when I was first diagnosed. The research I did and the treatment I got helped me recover. O.C.D. will always be a part of me, but today, it is much less central to how I define myself.
Five years ago, when people misused the term, describing themselves self-deprecatingly or humble-braggily as “O.C.D.” for keeping their pantry well organized, for instance, it made me extremely angry. I felt that the term was mine, and I was personally offended. Now, however, it doesn’t bother me at all. Of course people misuse the term O.C.D.; it is a widely misunderstood condition. When this happens now, I try to educate if appropriate, and then I get on with my day.