Mental Health Handbook: The Truths and Falsities of Common Mental Disorder Definitions

Albion College Counseling Services Building. (Photo by Jordan Revenaugh.)

Our daily language is littered with misapplied psychiatric jargon, like “OCD,” “bipolar” and “depressed.” While using such terms has become mainstreamed, it actually has more repercussions than you might initially think.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-fifth of U.S. adults suffer from a mental illness. The number, however, is speculated to be much higher, due to factors like lack of healthcare access, minimal knowledge on mental disorders or denial of struggling. Downplaying the severity of these issues might make those suffering internalize and minimize what they are going through, thus deterring them from seeking the help they need.

Next time you feel inclined to say that you’re “depressed” because it’s snowing before Thanksgiving or that you’re “OCD” about getting organized for finals, take a look at this handy guide and think twice about what you’re really saying.

All definitions of mental disorders are based off those in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an American Psychiatric Association handbook which includes the criteria for psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose patients with given disorders.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

What it is not: Maybe you like things neat and organized. Maybe you even like things ultra-clean, spick-and-span, if you will. Maybe you double check your pockets to make sure you have your wallet and your keys on you every time you leave the room. Liking things a certain way and having certain habits, however, does not automatically give you the right to claim that you’re “so OCD” about this or that.

What it is: A disorder which involves obsessions (consuming thoughts) or compulsions (repetitive behaviors) which become incredibly time-consuming and mentally draining to an individual. These continual behaviors can show themselves in many different forms, including excessive hand washing and excessively checking things like locks, plugs, and light switches. But it goes further than simply being a “germaphobe” or needing to check something once or twice before you leave the house. As obsessions swirl around and around in one’s head, compulsions often have to be completed by the individual over and over until things feel “just right.”


What it is not: Depression is not the sadness you might feel when you realize you don’t have enough money to go to Qdoba for the fourth time this week. It’s not your disappointment that the cafeteria ran out of Nutella for the fifth day in a row. It’s not even the heartbreak you feel listening to a Post Malone song.

What it is: Depression is a chronic, life-changing mood disorder that leaves an individual feeling hopeless, overwhelmed with sadness, and disinterested in activities he or she used to enjoy. Individuals with depression might have incredible difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, not just because they are tired, but rather because they feel as though going through their day-to-day lives is hopeless or pointless.


What it is not: Memes on Twitter about people wanting to kill themselves for this reason or that reason are not in short supply. People make claims about wanting to die because of trivial reasons, like average school stressors or even no reason at all.

What it is: Suicidality itself is not a mental disorder but a symptom of major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. Suicide is something incredibly serious and heartbreaking for anyone whose life has been affected by it.

Bipolar Disorder

What it is not: Michigan’s ever-changing weather does not, in fact, have bipolar disorder. Your slight mood swings, albeit annoying for you to deal with, are also not a signal that you are “so bipolar.”

What it is: Also referred to as manic depression, bipolar disorder includes random, severe mood swings which appear for no rhyme or reason from states of mania to states of depression. Individuals with bipolar disorder might experience a long period of immense sadness and hopelessness (depressive episode) which transitions quickly into an elated, irritable, and uncontrollable mood, often with impulsive actions (manic episode).

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What it is not: Even if you have to sleep with the light on after watching that scary film with all the jumpscares, you most likely don’t have PTSD from watching it. Even that math test that you might have failed, while incredibly unfortunate and no-doubt stressful, more than likely did not leave you with PTSD after you left the classroom.

What it is: PTSD is something experienced by individuals who have lived through a traumatic event, including war, sexual assault, domestic violence and many other events which can leave someone with lasting psychological pain. Anything that reminds an individual of that particular traumatic event can trigger a flashback, which can disrupt his or her mood and functioning severely. Nightmares are one common symptom.


What it is not: All of those comments on models’ Instagram pages claiming they “look anorexic,” or even some models themselves claiming to be “anorexic” can be taken with a grain of salt. While eating disorders might be prevalent in the modeling business, and while some models might be unhealthily underweight, that doesn’t mean that all have anorexia.

What it is: In order to fit the criteria of anorexia, one must be intentionally and severely restricting his or her caloric intake. While it might be most prevalent in adolescent girls and women, mental disorders don’t fit a certain image. Anyone can suffer from any disorder, regardless of who they are or what they look like.


What it is not: Your professor is not “psychotic” for giving you an exam the week before finals. The girl or guy who won’t stop texting you despite the many hints you’ve given to let them know you’re not interest, though irritating, is not “psychotic.”

What it is: Of all mental disorders, psychosis is most commonly a symptom of schizophrenia. Individuals with schizophrenia may have trouble discerning between what is reality and what is in their heads. It can inhibit their ability to work, maintain relationships and have normal day-to-day functioning if not treated properly.

The Takeaway

Although the effects of psychological disorders can be severe and life-altering, it is possible to live a normal life with a mental illness. It is important not to undermine how damaging mental illness can be, but it’s also important to remember that people struggling with mental health issues are still human. As a result, they do not need to be treated as inferior, incapable or different. They simply need to be treated with respect, and the first step to doing that is using mental health terminology properly.

Whether it’s talking to a trusted confidant or reaching out to counselling services, seeking help, despite what some may say, shows anything but weakness. A desire to grow and overcome one’s personal struggles takes a willful, resilient spirit. If you think you might be struggling from any form of mental illness, do not hesitate to seek help.

About Jordan Revenaugh 80 Articles
Jordan Revenaugh is a senior from Rochester, Michigan. An aspiring journalist and author, she is a double major in psychology and English with a creative writing concentration. In addition to being Editor-in-Chief of the Pleiad, Jordan runs cross country and track, is a part of Delta Gamma and InterVarsity, and is a dedicated avocado enthusiast.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.