Romanticizing mental illness and self-diagnosis of psychological issues seems to be a popular trend on social sites and in popular media, but what many fail to realize are the true meanings behind some of the words that are carelessly thrown into online posts or even conversation. From the standpoint of a patient who has been diagnosed with six different labels containing the word “disorder,” hearing terms thrown around about my ongoing battle is extremely difficult for me as comments often poke fun at or discredit many of the things I struggle with on a daily basis. So here, from the standpoint of a patient who has spent the past eight years under the care of trained psychiatric professionals along with research from the DSM 5, the American Psychiatric Association, and Merriam-Webster, I bring to you my vocabulary lesson for speaking on Mental Illness.
1. Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety is a feeling of unease or nervousness in response to normal stress, something everybody experiences. What everyone doesn’t experience, however, is excessive fear and loss of mental functioning through altered behavior that comes with having one of many anxiety disorders ranging from specific phobias to all-around Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Patients with a diagnosed anxiety problem exhibit fear, tension, panic, and physical symptoms far beyond what is proportionate for a healthy individual’s response to a situation, often in paralyzing anxiety or panic attacks (for which there are also differentiating factors) or by falling into a dissociative state. Patients with anxiety disorders can also differentiate between normal stress and what is truly unhealthy, something that can be aided by medical professionals. A diagnosis for an anxiety disorder is made by a psychiatrist who has ruled out all other possible environmental causes and done testing to ensure no other health problem such as a hormonal imbalance is to blame.
What Anxiety Disorders are NOT: An overreaction, a sign of immaturity, or a personality type completely different from all others. Often glamorized by popular media with phrases like “How a Person with Anxiety Loves You Differently.”
While not a mental illness specifically, this pattern of ongoing sleeplessness shown by trouble falling and/or staying asleep, timing of sleep, and sleep quality is seen in conjunction with other mental disorders and is commonly treated by psychiatrists. A diagnosis for insomnia involves present symptoms for at least three nights per week for a minimum of three months and extensive research to rule out all other possible causes such as medication side effects, diet, or other medical issues.
What Insomnia is NOT: Occasional sleeplessness, not feeling rested after waking up, or the inability to sleep due to stress, diet, etc.
3. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OCD is a type of anxiety disorder which stands out due to its recurrent pattern of thinking in its sufferers. Patients experience unwanted thoughts or sensations that continually recur and often feel driven to alter their behaviors or act in a certain way in attempts to control such thinking patterns. This can often cause increased anxiety due to time spent acting on compulsions or the emotional distress of obsessive thoughts. A diagnosis for OCD requires at least one or more hours per day spent acting on compulsions that cause major distress and impair work, social, or other functioning. About 1.2% of Americans are diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
What Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is NOT: Being “too picky,” simply liking things done a specific way, wanting things done “their way,” or Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Often misused by many with phrases like “I’m very OCD about cleaning my room.” or glamorized with t-shirt slogans and marketing campaigns such as “I have OCD: Obsessive Christmas Disorder.”
4. Personality Disorders
There are ten specific types of personality disorders characterized into three clusters by their varying kinds of behavior: odd or eccentric, emotional or erratic, and anxious or fearful. The second cluster covers Antisocial Personality Disorder for which patients are often referred to as “Psychopaths” or “Sociopaths” (within these two branches of the disorder there are also differences). This cluster also covers Narcissistic Personality Disorder and two other Personality Disorders. These two disorders specifically affect how the patient interacts and perceives other people as well as impulsive behavior and struggles with empathy. It is important to remember that personality disorders like all mental illnesses, are never the fault of the patient even when they act outside of societal norms. Diagnoses for personality disorders involve the presence of symptoms and behavior for at least a year that greatly affect at least two of four major concern areas including self perception, emotional response, relation to others, and way of controlling one’s behavior.
What Personality Disorders are NOT: Being intentionally self-centered, being rude or antisocial, or being unintelligent for not understanding societal norms. These are often misused in the media by portraying sufferers of personality disorders as crazed killers or threats to society waiting to take advantage of anyone who gets too close. Frequently used as an insult in conversation with comments such as “you don’t understand, you’re such a psychopath.”
The most commonly misunderstood mental disorder of today’s world is sadly one of the most common medical illnesses overall. Characterized by a severe, deep sadness that causes loss of interest in hobbies and activities, changes in appetite or weight, sleeping too much or too little, intense fatigue, purposeless physical activity, slowed speech or movement, lingering feelings of guilt or worthlessness, difficulty thinking or making decisions, and thoughts of death or suicide and self-harm. Depression is very different from sadness, grief, or the bereavement of life changes such as the end of a relationship or loss of a job as these are natural processes which allow for waves of emotional changes to come through. Depression, however, is like a heavy blanket that smothers all waves and changes in emotional functioning and mental clarity, an ever-present force that is contrastingly unnatural. A diagnosis can be made by a psychiatrist after symptoms have been consistent for several weeks and all other possible medical and lifestyle conditions such as thyroid problems, hormonal imbalances, tumors, vitamin deficiencies, and dietary imbalances have been tested and ruled out.
Depression is NOT: simply being sad, being lazy, being antisocial, an unvalidated illness, or actually being unworthy of happiness. Depression is often misused as a synonym for sadness when in fact it is vastly more complicated. Often glamorized as an artist’s disease that makes one more prophetic and inspiring.
All mental health struggles are valid concerns which should be addressed by the proper professionals and should be treated with the highest standard of care and respect. Speaking, posting, and portraying mental illness in any such way that glamorizes, stereotypes, or discredits its symptoms or its sufferers is nothing less than shameful. I urge you to consider this next time you hear the word “depressed” out of proper context or before you label someone with a diagnosis for acting differently. Educate yourself, ask for help, and above all else, recognize that medical disorders of all kinds are not to be taken lightly.