It’s not uncommon for people to minimize the consequences of living with brain disorders. Part of the problem I suspect is language.  I’ve mentioned that, and will probably continue to elaborate on it in other posts. I’ve started to write about it before and kept getting trapped in an endless loop of definitions and citations that would probably make your eyes glaze over were you forced to read them repeatedly.  Which you’d need to do in order to follow the circuitous series of conclusions (and the occasional digressions).  And I ultimately decided that to post what I’d written would be arguably a violation of the Geneva Convention, which hardly seemed fair to both of my readers.

Unlike most1 serious physical disorders, the brain disorders commonly known as “mental illness” have the unique disadvantage of employing terms that are also in common usage.  In conversational speech, people may talk about being “depressed” as essentially a synonym for “sad,” while the term has a more complex meaning when used in reference to mood disorders.  Even “mood” falls into the category of words with different conversational and clinical meanings.

Conversationally, “mood” is understood to refer to an emotion or feeling that is regarded as transitory.  Perhaps not fleeting, but a “mood” is expected to subside.  A “mood” is also expected to be a response to the world – “why are you in such a good/bad mood today?” is a pretty common question that demonstrates this understanding. The question is a perfectly appropriate use of the word in terms of its conversational meaning.

Clinically2 it has a different meaning, in perhaps subtle, but quite important ways.  “Mood” as used in that context is a more complex concept – it’s an emotional state that is almost by definition of a longer duration.  It’s also a state that can influence perceptions and your experience of the world.  Most importantly, a “mood” as understood clinically, is not necessarily a response to a stimulus.  In this context, the question of “why are you in a good/bad mood today” makes about as much sense as asking someone “why do you have low/high cholesterol levels today?” – there’s a comparable amount of choice involved on the part of the person you’d ask.  It’s an admittedly imperfect analogy, on a variety of levels.  But I hope you can get the idea that “mood” as used in a medical context has a different meaning.  As does “depressed.”

In fact, it was refreshing to read a recent novel, in which the distinction is stated:

The pizza guy said, “Jacob was like this total stoner, slacker, bullshit artist, I don’t know how he kept the job.”

“Good programmer,” ICE said. “Smart.”

“But messed up,” said the computer guy named Jon. “He was depressed. I mean, like mentally ill, not like bummed out.” 3

That’s as simple an explanation of the two uses of the words as you’re likely to find in popular fiction.  Under the circumstances, I won’t even quibble about “mentally ill” since the different versions of meaning are set forth explicitly. Far too many people want to insist that (clinical) depression is really no big deal because everybody gets bummed out over something.

The big deal over the two uses of  “depression” is the confusion created.  The clinical mood disorder known as “depression” isn’t simply a matter of being bummed out.  It’s a constellation of symptoms that can include social withdrawal, a loss of interest in activities that were previously pleasurable, loss of appetite, hopelessness and difficulty concentrating, as well as (other, more clearly) physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive difficulties, and fatigue.  Given that most people have only experience the “depression” in the sense of being “bummed out,” it’s hardly surprising that a response to hearing someone is depressed is to “get over it.”  But it’s not that simple – would that it were.


1 I’d say “all other serious physical disorders,” but I’m not entirely certain that it’s an accurate assertion.  And I’m unwilling, at this juncture, to perform the research required to determine its accuracy. My commitment to retaining my (presumptive) title as Most Assiduously Pedantic Writer on WordPress in Recent Memory requires that I alert you to the distinction.  Consider yourself alerted.

2 Disclaimer : I am not a physician of any kind (nor do I play one on the internet), so this discussion is not intended to provide an actual clinical definition of “mood” – there are medical dictionaries (and psychiatrists) which may be consulted for that information.  Rather my intent is to explore the distinction between definitions and how the usages can get blurred, as part of the general theme of how language  influences stigma.

3 John Sanford, Stolen Prey (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012), p.190