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Friday, May 24, 2024
Overuse/weaponization of “therapy speak”

Save it for your therapist: A call to reconsider our relationship with mental health language

With access to mental health treatment on the rise, “therapy speak” has become an important tool in clinical spaces. But it has the potential to be weaponized outside of the office.

A note from the writer: Having access to mental health care is a privilege. Luckily, we have access to UHS counseling services as UW-Madison students. If you or a loved one are dealing with a mental health emergency, UHS offers 24/7 crisis counseling services

I know you’re probably bracing for something that uncle would say at Thanksgiving dinner, but hear me out. “Saving it for your therapist” might be for the best. 

It’s one thing to raise awareness and work to eliminate mental health stigma through self-advocacy, but it’s another to aid in a culture that’s making “therapy speak” lose its meaning. 

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conversations about mental health are far from taboo. Now more than ever, students are encouraged to reach out in times of need. 

And according to the 2022 “Healthy Minds Survey,” they are. While in college, 39% of UW-Madison students have met with a mental health professional, an impressive statistic considering that, as of 2021, the CDC found only 21.6% of adults sought mental health treatment in the last year.

As students share their stories and advocate for their well-being, mental health issues have shifted from something discussed behind closed doors to something talked about loudly on the third floor of College Library.

Conversations promoting increased awareness and normalization have helped eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues. However, with this benefit comes an unexpected side effect: the misuse of mental health language, or “therapy speak.”

There’s no single definition of “misuse,” but consider some of the following scenarios. Maybe your friend comes over after having a really long day, and it seems like all they can talk about is an argument they got in with a coworker. You might have the instinct to call that “trauma dumping.” Maybe you think back to a time when your ex wouldn’t stop talking about themselves. You might want to call them a “narcissist.” 

When faced with frustrating and confusing situations, it’s natural to rely on words created to help us heal while conveniently rationalizing others’ behavior. But expanding the definition of clinical terminology is outside of our scope as non-mental health professionals, and it’s probably doing more harm than good. 

If you’re like me and have used these terms in casual conversation it’s important to ask yourself: could you articulate the difference between venting and “trauma dumping?” Do you know the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder? Even so, are you the right person to diagnose your ex?

Chances are, these are things you should discuss with a mental health professional rather than jumping to your own conclusions.

But the harm in misusing mental health language goes beyond mixing up a definition or two. Misused “therapy speak” has become a “Get-out-of-accountability-free Card,” and it's starting to lose its meaning. I know from experience.

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I like to think of “therapy speak” like a painkiller. Different people have different needs. If you’re prone to migraines, there’s nothing wrong with taking aspirin more than the average person. When needed, there’s nothing wrong with taking a clinical approach. When needed, there’s nothing wrong with relying on valuable coping and communication strategies.

But when you resort to a quick fix in cases where you could otherwise get by, those quick fixes become less effective. You might start to build a resistance when you use Advil for every scrape and bump. You might find the people around you become resistant to “therapy speak” when it’s used in every disagreement. The bottom line is, for most people, not every problem requires a clinical solution.

“Therapy speak” is a powerful tool, but if we want to keep it that way, we have to think about when and how we use it. 

I hadn’t re-considered my relationship with “therapy speak” until I found myself compelled to explain away my own bad behavior. Sparing you the gory details, I recently ghosted a promising “talking stage.” At the time, I really enjoyed getting to know them, but I eventually panicked. I stopped responding to text messages and follow-ups, and I decided it had been too long to respond at all. 

I felt uncomfortable. I felt guilty. I didn’t like what I had done. But even worse, I found myself wanting to use “therapy speak” to explain away my behavior. I wanted to text them that I have a horrible tendency to get terribly anxious and to drop off the face of the earth and that it was “nothing personal.” It was just an issue with my anxiety

But it wasn’t about me. I had hurt someone else's feelings. Deep down, I knew that connecting my bad behavior to my anxious tendencies was powerful. I knew it would be something difficult to respond to. I knew it was wrong. 

Instead, I needed to text them. I needed to apologize. I needed to be held accountable and to figure out why on my own terms.

A conversation addressing the issue head-on and working through why I found myself compelled to run away is one I need to have. But, it’s not one that includes the person I wronged. It’s a conversation I need to save for myself, or given the opportunity, for my therapist.

Blake Martin is a junior studying English and political science. Do you think we should reconsider our relationship with "therapy speak"? Send all comments to

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