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The term may not mean what you think

Written by Dr. Goku, Psy. D, Guardians MH Clinical Director

Every specialized profession has its terminology, whether this is Medicine, Law or Information Technology. The technical terms help unify and simplify conversations between professionals in the same domain. However, in many situations, media, popular culture and other individuals (who are not professionals in the specific field) can use these terms in the incorrect way or context.

In the field of psychology, this is called psychobabble. The term comes from the words psychology (the study of the mind) and babble (speaking meaningless or unintelligible sounds). Psychobabble relies heavily on using psychological jargon, buzzwords and expressions, often coming from individuals with little to no psychological training. They may try to present themselves as more knowledgeable or credible than they are. Please see more information on IKA (I Know it All) experts and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Writer Richard Dean Rosen coined the term as people who often use colloquial psychology terms in their general language. With the proliferation of self-help books, magazines, TV shows, and an increase in therapy, people use these terms as part of the social and cultural zeitgeist. People use psychological diagnosis terms as general explanations for certain behaviours (OCD for liking things to be clean). The problem with this is that it tends to pathologize normal behaviours as the terms are misused (I.E. mood swings equal bipolar).

The problem with psychobabble and those who often use it negatively is that it tends to dilute the term, morphing them into utterly different from the scientific and clinical meaning. Some people may prey on people's lack of understanding of specific terms to present miracle cures and treatments that aren't evidence-based, leading to harmful results. A few years back, a PSA made by the OPQ, a provincial regulating body for psychologists in Qu├ębec, Canada, demonstrated this point. Having an untrained person provide "treatment" or "guidance" can be akin to a bull in a china shop.

Psychobabble can create wrongful labels for people which they may carry for their entire lives. People can identify and define themselves by the terms, not knowing they don't meet any diagnostic criteria. Psychobabble can also lead to considerable amounts of emotional distress for people who suffer from professionally diagnosed disorders. Due to the misunderstanding of the terms, their distress is often minimized by people close to them.

Being antisocial does not mean wanting to stay home, away from people, but a pervasive personality disorder where individuals disregard societal rules. Suffering from OCD is not just wanting things clean and in order, but someone who suffers from pervasive, intrusive thoughts, which can cause severe emotional distress and physical pain. Someone suffering from depression is not just sad, but a persistent negative thinking loop that affects all aspects of their life. They can't just "stop being sad."

People who have psychological disorders are not exaggerating their difficulties. On the contrary, psychobabble has often minimized and twisted what they struggle with to something that should easily be "solved." Unfortunately, there is no solution or a cure for mental illness, as so many have pronounced. Effective psychological treatment and mental health management take time and help the person manage their difficulties, leveling the playing field.