Let's Talk Therapy Talk

Buzzwords and phrases are setting mental health advocacy back; how can college students stop contributing to the problem?


This article contains mentions of suicidal ideation.

Today was a rough day. Studying for that exam made you literally want to kill yourself. You have total PTSD from failing the last one. The cherry on top of all of the stress is that when you get back to your dorm, your room is a mess—you’re so OCD about keeping it clean, but your roommate is much less organized.

Wait… let’s backtrack. Yes, today was a rough day, and studying for that exam was tough, but you’ve never genuinely been suicidal in your life. You’re feeling nervous about this test because you failed the last one, but nervousness hardly fits the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And what does OCD really stand for anyway?  Stopping to think about the weight of your words can take practice, but it’s far more important than you might realize.

Khushi Dave is the vice president of USC’s mental health and wellness organization Active Minds. As someone who has struggled with her own mental health, Dave feels that ignorant therapy talk can feel, “really invalidating to people, especially when it is reduced down to a common experience.” Without realizing it, many people exaggerate their feelings when they are actually only experiencing a normal phenomenon. 

“People are prone to hyperbolizing when they feel strong emotions, and oftentimes it comes out as quantifying it as a mental illness,” Dave said. “There are so many other symptoms, and there are so many other factors that go into diagnosing things.”

These types of hyperboles can be classified as "therapy talk" among students.

Dr. MiKi Kitchen, a senior instructor at USC in the psychology department, uses the following analogy when discussing the misuse of therapy talk:

“A lot of us feel blue… and we still go on about our day,” Kitchen said. “An individual who has actual depression that is diagnosable, they are not able to function unless they put the parameters in place.”

Based on experiences with students and clients, Kitchen recognizes that individuals who live with a mental disorder would give anything to feel a sense of normalcy in their life, while people who sensationalize mental health issues often use it as a crutch.

“As someone who works with veterans and trauma survivors, they wouldn’t want to wish this on anybody else,” Kitchen said. “They would change their life in a heartbeat and it’s not something that’s a fad or should be normalized to that level.”

These “parameters" that Kitchen mentioned, can be found through proper diagnosis and treatment; with medicine, therapy and improved life structure, people with debilitating mental disorders can begin to function at a healthier level. According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness California, modern treatments for mental health disorders are very successful; with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments, 70 to 90 percent of patients see their symptoms significantly reduced and experience an improved quality of life.  However, the spread of misinformation about mental illness through stigmatized dialogue can prevent people from seeking the help that they need. 

“If you are surrounded by a friend group and if anything bad happens to them, they kind of just jokingly talk about being depressed or having really bad anxiety; oftentimes it can make you feel like, ‘Oh, this is normal,’” Dave said.

Applying mental illnesses to everyday experiences can become invalidating to those in actual mental health crises. 

“Unfortunately, it then diminishes those who do actually have [a mental disorder] and they don’t seek help,” Kitchen said. “They question themselves, they question the process, they question all of that.”

A lack of understanding can lead the entire diagnostic process to be sensationalized rather than normalized. In reality, there is nothing sensational about mental illness. Dave uses OCD as an example of a common misconception. 

“It is the most common [diagnosis] that is misunderstood in terms of what it actually is,” Dave said. “Keeping things tidy, that’s not at all what it is… it’s actually this really debilitating life disorder that prevents you from doing a lot of things that you want to do.”

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, has two parts, according to Rodgers Behavioral Health. First, the disorder involves obsessions, or unwanted thoughts, images and urges. Obsessions can cause high levels of anxiety which individuals with OCD try to neutralize by performing compulsions. Compulsions are the second part of the disorder and can include behaviors such as washing, checking, organizing or a mental act. 

OCD goes far beyond “keeping things tidy,” and its gravity is widely misunderstood just like many other mental health disorders. 

"I have students that come to class and I know based on disability reports and whatnot that they have anxiety that is crippling, but yet they still show up,” Kitchen said.

People are far from alone in their mental health struggles; according to the World Health Organization, 4 out of 10 leading causes of disabilities in the United States and other developed countries are mental health disorders. In 2020, Major Depressive illness became the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children. Talking about mental health is not harmful if it is done in a way that reduces misconceptions rather than diminishes genuine struggles. Kitchen is happy with how society as a whole has begun to talk more about mental health-related issues, but she fears that it may be heading to a dangerous extreme. 

“We are doing a really good job of normalizing it and reducing the stigmas, but in doing so we have swung so far to the other side of things that it is becoming a fad.” Kitchen said.

If this fad discourages individuals with mental illnesses from taking their emotional health seriously, the effects of their untreated disorders can be detrimental to themselves and society as a whole.  According to the NAMI California, untreated mental health conditions can result in consequences such as unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and poor quality of life. These staggering effects bleed into the economy, costing the United States more than 100 billion dollars each year.

Destigmatizing mental health-related issues takes more than just conversation; it takes educated dialogue to properly confront the problem. 

“I think it’s a matter of education,” Kitchen said. “I do take it very seriously. I talk about it in the class that I teach.”

Even if you might feel like a buzzkill killing the buzzwords, confronting and educating your peers is necessary to address when people around you misuse therapy talk in unhealthy ways.

“I think that just overall it can be kind of hard to address it when it is so prevalent and a lot of times you don’t even realize that you’re talking about it,” Dave said.  

Dave believes that the first step to tackling this issue is to be mindful of your own words and to think about the impact you’re trying to make with what you say.

“There are a lot of other strong emotional words that portray how you are feeling without undermining the way other people are living their lives,” Dave said.