Don’t call it “depression”!

Posted on October 10, 2015


“It is commonly used for depression” I answered to a gentleman in a perfectly HIPAA safe environment, after being asked what Pristiq was prescribed for. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a fleeting look of horror from a nearby colleague.

“You shouldn’t have said depression, people sometimes get upset by that” she said, minutes later.  “The correct term is “mood stabilizer!”.

Confused by this new development and wondering how I could have possibly missed that memo, I opened up a discussion with a few other co-workers. The results of my informal poll had 50% in strong favor of “mood stabilizers” and an equal amount in support of the medical term “depression”. No prizes for guessing what side I was on.

I also recall a few months ago, a friend who works for another community chain received orders from their corporate office saying they were now to refer to “patients” as “patrons”. “Patron” makes me think brothel…but I digress. I do remember thinking to myself though, “is “patient” starting to be a bad word?”

If this comes off insensitive, I sincerely apologize; but if you can relate to this, I need to ask the following questions:

  • Why are you offended by a medical term? 
  • When/Why did you start feeling like you should be embarrassed by the honest terminology of a diagnosis?

Other questions worth discussing are:

  • Is the offense in the name itself, or what it “supposedly” represents? 
  • How can anyone be comfortable receiving help, when we refuse to even name their illness?

Don’t get me wrong, most health care providers have no problem calling anyone or group what they desire to be called. However, saying people need to be “politically correct” about medical terminology seems like a step in the wrong direction.

Case in point: Back in 2013, the diagnostic term “mental retardation” which ironically, was itself used to replace older terms such as “feeblemindedness”, “idiocy” and “mental subnormality” was eliminated from the internal classification of disease and disorders. However its replacement, “intellectual disability” presented a new set of problems – non-specificity and confusion with other conditions. As a result the term “mental retardation” is still sometimes used in professional medical settings.

While I agree that in recent times, a word like “retard” has now taken on a derogatory meaning; I foresee a never ending cycle that the healthcare community cannot sustain. One where society assigns a negative connotation to an innocuous medical term, thereby making us feel the need to replace it with a more politically correct one. One that blurs the lines of patient diagnosis and attaches a stigma to said diagnosis. In summary, doing more harm than good.

For example, a mood stabilizer could be a drug for depression, hot flashes, anxiety, and a host of other drugs that “stabilize your mood”. It therefore seems to me like we are fighting the wrong fight here.

Is changing terminology the answer? Or should we instead focus on ensuring that terminology is not used as a tool to embarrass or shame patients?

People tend to not feel negatively about something until society tells them they should. In my above example, the patient had no problem being told his drug was for depression, until the world probably tells him he should. Being ill is not a stigma, and being properly diagnosed should never be seen as such. Saying health professionals cannot use medical terms like “depression” perpetuates the notion that health issues are something to be ashamed of. One that further prevents people from getting much needed help.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever been offended by a medical term?

P.S – The timing of this post is purely coincidental with #WorldMentalHealthDay, but I’m really glad mental illness is getting as much awareness as it currently is. It cannot necessarily be “eradicated”; but by ending the stigma around it, we can change perceptions and encourage people who are going through it to seek help.

If you are suffering from any mental illness, please remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR ILLNESS. Never feel ashamed or embarrassed about consulting a professional and talking about it. You can and will get better.