The Tyranny of Common Meaning

This has been a surprisingly difficult post to craft. I started and stopped writing numerous times, trying out variations of an opening paragraph, but none of them worked for me. I found myself tap-dancing around the subject I wanted to share with you instead of expressing it head-on. So, here it is: I believe that the commonality of some words, like depression and anxiety, gets in the way of any true dialogue about mental illness. Such words have a history behind them that taints the true nature of the mental health issue in question. I’ve come to call this history, this perception, the “Tyranny of Common Meaning”.


Image by John D


One such word, the one that has the most importance to me given my disorder, is “depression”. It’s a word that’s used to describe low mood, sadness, hopelessness and gloom. It’s a word that, when capitalized, refers to the specific economic downturn of the 1930’s. As I reveal in the dictionary extract above, it can also refer to the action of pressing down, to the presence of low barometric pressure, to a reduction in force, to a less pronounced economic downturn or to a hollow in a lawn.

Clearly, context will help determine the meaning intended by the user; however, we are then left with the preconceived notion of meaning premised on personal experience, an element which I contend is an even larger barrier to understanding.

Everyone has episodes of sadness. Everyone has periods of low mood. These occasions are, correctly, identified as depression as defined in dictionaries. They are not, though, in any way, shape or form akin to a depressive episode experienced by someone who lives with Major Depressive Disorder. The latter has an effect that is orders of magnitude more debilitating than the former. The latter, unlike the former, need not have any discernible cause or end. Use that common word and you immediately face the existence of supposed understanding formed by general life experience. The use of the word “depression” invites these preconceptions to intrude into the dialogue and, in my view, derail it.

My solution, therefore, is to avoid the use of the common word and opt to use the words found in the definition itself: depressive episode and Major Depressive Disorder. This allows me to circumvent the preconceived notions and better educate, and engage, others in my efforts to speak out. This, I submit, better serves to frame the dialogue within the boundaries of mental illness of the treatment thereof.

How do you choose to frame the dialogue in your discussions? Please share that with us.



I value your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.