mental health, though, that’s my jam. not only do i have a degree in it, i also experience, firsthand, its effects everyday.
so every day of this mental health awareness week, there’ll be a new post about a different aspect of mental health. i hope it’s informative and applicable to your lives too - sometimes i worry that i write too much about my own small corner of mental health, and i know that no two experiences are ever the same - but hopefully it is both useful and insightful to you, too.
one thing that i’ve been realising a lot recently, is how many phrases/terms we use when discussing mental health that, perhaps, aren’t recognised by even other sufferers, let alone by neurotypical people who just want to learn more. i think that it is easy to forget that not everyone - either with MH issues or without - is well-read on the topic. for some people, researching things is not second nature, and it can be even more isolating living with a mental health disorder when all the available resources use words or phrases or acronyms that you’re not familiar with. so, for today’s post, here is a short glossary of some terms that might make the discussion more accessible. there’s no point in encouraging people to talk more if we make the conversation a jargon-laden maze of obstacles and barriers!
*this is not my version of the DSM [see: DSM below], there will not be a symptom list, nor a complete breakdown of every disorder. this is not an exercise in diagnosis, this is simply a way to make the topic a more accessible one by breaking down the language used.
also known as mood disorders. main affective disorders are: major depressive disorder (‘depression’), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders.
medications that aim to improve the symptoms of a wide array of disorders (used mainly for depression and anxiety disorders, but also for many others) by aiming to correct imbalances of chemicals in the brain that are thought to be responsible for mood & behaviour changes. the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressants are SSRIs (see: SSRIs).
medications that aim to improve the symptoms of psychotic disorders - including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, some bipolar disorders, and severe depression. the mechanism behind them is quite complex. some people think that they don’t necessarily get rid of symptoms, but just leave the sufferer feeling less bothered by them. psychotic episodes have been linked to too much of a neurotransmitter called dopamine being produced - so most antipsychotics block some dopamine receptors which helps to slow down the barrage of information being ‘fired’ around the brain.
a common experience which involves hearing something that seems to have no source. also known as paracusia. an example of auditory hallucinations is hearing voices.
in clinical contexts - i.e. with bulimia nervosa - a highly destructive pattern of overeating.
body-focused repetitive behaviours. this is an umbrella term for disorders such as dermatillomania and trichotillomania (see: both below respectively), and is characterised by complex disorders that involve repeatedly touching/picking/pulling at the body/hair with the potential to lead to injury. the disorders are linked to both anxiety and OCD, and often overlap with both/either. picking/pulling/chewing/biting is often a release, although the shame of engaging in it often leads to more anxiety/obsessions, which in turn lead to an increase in the destructive behaviour.
a complex spectrum of disorders that mainly affect mood. it is characterised by pathological mood swings that involve very low & lethargic periods (depression) to very high & overactive periods (mania). there are generally considered to be 3 different types of bipolar disorder. it used to be known as manic depressive disorder and, although the name has been changed for a long time, there is still a great deal of stigma attached to the disorder.
body dysmorphic disorder:
an anxiety disorder related to body image. it involves developing obsessive worries about an aspect of your appearance that you perceive to be a flaw but that is either minor/invisible to others; and compulsive behaviours/routines that you use to feel more in control of your appearance. in this way, BDD is closely related to OCD, as the behaviours can begin to interfere with daily life. there are also similarities with eating disorders, but they are not the same - although some people with BDD may develop eating disorders, not everyone with an eating disorder has BDD.
borderline personality disorder:
a personality disorder that involves aspects of both neurosis (see: neurosis) and psychosis (see: psychosis). it involves being ‘emotionally unstable’ (although many understandably choose to avoid using this terminology) and having trouble being able to process & regulate emotion, which can lead to issues with maintaining relationships, behaviours, and a sense of self.
cognitive behavioural therapy:
a type of talking therapy, in which a therapist aims to create a structured, action-oriented/problem-solving approach to mental health issues, which involves changing thinking patterns and behaviours, so as to be able to manage symptoms more effectively and take more control over the disorder
the simultaneous experiencing of two or more illnesses by the same person. i.e having both anxiety and depression, or depression and addiction/dependence. it is an important area of research because there is a question of whether one disorder causes the other, or the person simply has a predisposition to both disorders.
a repetitive behaviour or mental action that a person feels obliged to do in order to prevent something from happening or to reduce distress/discomfort they’re experiencing. these behaviours or mental actions are in response to an obsession. [see: obsessions, OCD]
a false or irrational belief that is held by a person, despite concrete evidence to prove otherwise, and that is not rooted in religion/spiritual belief - i.e. is not held/accepted by other members of the person’s culture/subculture.
a progressive, deterioration of mental function, caused by damage to the brain. alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, but not all dementia is alzheimer’s.
a mood disorder characterised by sadness, low self-esteem, lethargy, lack of pleasure/interest in things that would previously have provoked excitement/interest, and an inability to concentrate.
also known as compulsive skin-picking disorder, or excoriation disorder. a type of BFRB, characterised by compulsively picking at the skin until bleeding, bruising, scarring, infection etc occurs. the picking is a form of release from distress/discomfort/anxiety, and although temporarily effective, usually leads to a cycle of shame/guilt that leads to more picking. closely linked to both anxiety and OCD. can also include picking/biting of lips and/or chewing the inside of the mouth.
diagnostic & statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM):
the manual produced by the american psychiatric association that is used for diagnosing mental disorders. used worldwide. each new addition includes updates and inclusion of new/better understood disorders. currently on the 5th edition.
dialectical behaviour therapy:
a type of therapy used to treat borderline personality disorder. it is based on CBT but has been adapted to more effectively treat people experiencing very intense emotion - and, more so than with CBT, it focuses on accepting who you are, while still trying to change unhelpful behaviours.
a term used to describe a wide array of experiences - ranging from mild detachment, to complete detachment from mental/physical function. usually, it describes the feeling that you’re disconnected from what’s happening around you, or from yourself. dissociation can refer to many different experiences - including, but not limited to, derealisation and depersonalisation.
a range of disorders that are characterised by developing an abnormal attitude towards food, and that causes a person to change their behaviour/habits surrounding food/eating. the main focus may be about controlling weight/body shape, although not all eating disorders result in weight loss.
generalised anxiety disorder:
a disorder that causes its sufferers chronic, long-term excessive worry, distress, or fear without any apparent cause. for diagnosis, the usual timeframe is experiencing constant worry for 6 months or more with no rational source of danger/concern.
experiencing senses - hearing, seeing, smelling - which are only in your mind, but perceiving them as happening in real life.
a milder form of mania - i.e. overactive, heightened, energetic, excited behaviour - that lasts a short time (a couple to a few days). you may experience it as a symptom of another disorder - especially mood disorders - but similarly can occur as an independent diagnosis.
impulse control disorder:
disorder characterised by impulsivity, which is the inability to resist acting on a temptation, an urge, an impulse.
this can manifest itself in different ways - i.e. compulsive gambling, stealing (kleptomania), pyromania, compulsive hair-pulling, compulsive skin-picking.
a more severe form of hypomania (see above) that lasts for over a week and is characterised by more intense behaviours and its ability to impact your daily life.
[see bipolar disorder]
a category of mental disorders which primarily affect mood - e.g depression.
a class of mental disorder symptom that includes unprovoked levels of stress/distress, but does not involve hallucination or delusions (compare: psychosis).
a chemical messenger in the brain that transmits signals - helping to regulate other chemicals which are responsible for most of our daily functions like sleep, appetite, pleasure, mood, movement, behaviour, temperature etc. dopamine and serotonin are examples of neurotransmitters.
thoughts, urges, impulses, worries, mental images etc that are unwanted, invasive (i.e intrudes on your thoughts), and repetitive. they feel uncontrollable and persistent, and are very often irrational. these thoughts often provoke behaviours in a person in order to feel as though they are combatting the thought - see: compulsions, OCD.
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD):
sufferers of OCD experience obsessions - repeated, intrusive, irrational thoughts/urges/impulses etc - that cause great anxiety or mental discomfort. the thoughts can cause a great deal of distress because it makes the sufferer feel out of control of their own thoughts. in order to combat these obsessions, sufferers develop routines or behaviour that will reduce the anxiety or distress caused by the obsessions. these are called compulsions. for example, if the invasive thought (obsession) is about about contamination, the resulting behaviour (compulsion) may be repeatedly washing your hands. this is the most typically thought of example, but obsessions can take many forms - invasive thoughts may be concerned with loved ones being in danger, something being wrong with you, problems with your relationship, blasphemous ideas, and sexuality/sexual preference.
sudden, short-lived but intense, anxiety episode - characterised by very intense anxiety symptoms, such as fear, anguish, danger, or impeding doom - when there is no tangible source. they can come out of nowhere, and be very distressing for the sufferer. they also include elevated physical symptoms of anxiety such a shortness of breath, chest tightness, sweating, increased heart rate etc.
a disorder characterised by repeated bouts of panic attacks. between attacks themselves, the sufferer might also be extremely anxious about when the next one might occur.
characterised by thinking & feeling as though you are under severe threat, even when there is little/no evidence of such. paranoid thoughts may also be thought of as delusions. some people disagree on what constitutes paranoia, as opposed to just suspicion, although it can be generally agreed that paranoia causes much greater impact on your daily life - as it amplifies fear/anxieties you may have and can provoke extreme behaviour.
depression that is experienced either during pregnancy (ante- or prenatal) or after childbirth (postnatal). it is natural to feel emotional and drained during/after pregnancy, but around 10-15% of new mothers suffer from a much more severe depression, which can be extremely distressing.
an irrational and intense fear/aversion to something that is persistent and can be debilitating. phobias often cause extreme anxiety in response to a situation/activity/object, which is hard to control and often provokes avoidant behaviour.
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
a severe & complex anxiety disorder that occurs after a physical or emotional experience which was traumatic, frightening, distressing, severely stressful - e.g assault, abuse, life-threatening accidents, injuries etc. the sufferer will experience flashbacks - persistent, frightening thoughts/dreams - of the incident. it can be extremely debilitating, as well as isolating, as sufferers often describe themselves as feeling emotionally numb.
premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD):
a very severe form of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) which causes debilitating symptoms every month for a week or two before menstruation.
episode of mental health in which the sufferer loses touch with reality - i.e they perceive the world differently from those around them. this may involve delusions or hallucinations.
(of bulimia nervosa) engaging in a destructive pattern of behaviours that will rid your body of calories
a highly complex disorder that involves an inability to determine what’s real and what’s not, to think logically, to regulate their emotional responses, and to behave ‘normally’ in social situations. it is often characterised by delusions and hallucinations, as well as confusion & agitation, and a withdrawal from society.
seasonal affective disorder (SAD):
a form of depression that is related to seasonal changes. most commonly, people are affected in winter, but some suffer SAD ‘in reverse’ - i.e the summer provokes the onset of the disorder.
inflicting injury upon yourself in order to cope with difficult feelings, emotions, stresses, memories, or situations. it is cyclical in nature - with the initial act causing very temporary relief from the distress that provoked it, and often resulting in feelings of guilt/shame and often some very difficult emotions in response to having injured yourself. once you begin to depend on the cycle, it can be very hard - and take a very long time - to stop.
a cluster of disorders which are varied, and can range from mild trouble falling asleep to very severe conditions. sleep disorders are hard to diagnosis, and also highly subjective - as different people need different levels of sleep. for many people, problems with sleep are an accompaniment to a period of bad mental health.
an anxiety disorder characterised by severe anxiety and discomfort in social situations - particularly involving the prospect of being humiliated, or being shunned/mocked by others, in public.
selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. serotonin is a chemical neurotransmitter. it has a wide variety of uses throughout the body. no-one’s really 100% sure what causes depression, but over the last 50 years the theory that low serotonin levels are a contributing factor has taken hold. usually, when neurotransmitters have done their job they are reabsorbed back into the body. SSRIs work by preventing reabsorption (‘re-uptake’) which allows the serotonin levels to increase, which is thought to positively affect mood levels.
thoughts of suicide.
intentionally taking one’s own life.
also known as compulsive hair-pulling. a body-focused repetitive behaviour classed as an impulse-control disorder. characterised by the pulling out of one's own hair - from anywhere on the body, but most commonly from the scalp, the eyelashes, and the eyebrows - usually resulting in noticeable hair loss. a cyclical disorder which involves a build-up of tension & discomfort prior to pulling, or when resisting pulling, followed by intense relief or gratification immediately afterwards - but leading to feelings of guilt/shame which begins the cycle again. closely linked to both anxiety and OCD.
this is not an exhaustive list. there are many more terms used in the mental health world that are not included here. there are also some that i chose not to include - because i wasn't sure whether they could be considered appropriate or not. there are terms related to autism which i chose not to include, as i would not categorise disorders on the autism spectrum as 'mental health' disorders - but that i appreciate would be helpful to some as part of this wider conversation.
i may add to this list over time, and would encourage you to get in touch if you think i have missed any that deserve inclusion.
i hope this helps move the conversation forward slightly, and will potentially make it more accessible to those who are not well-versed in these matters.
i hope, also, that it will cut down on flippant use of some of these words, as a form of exaggeration. please consider whether your use of these terms is appropriate if you do not suffer from them, and whether you can find a better, less offensive way of calling yourself tidy, discussing your mood swings, or saying you ate a bigger dinner than usual. it's 2018, if mental health awareness really matters to you, show it.