The Trivialization of Mental Health Disorders

March 22, 2020
It's very common to hear someone describe having had a "panic attack" when they've really just been afraid for a moment. Similarly, people will talk of being "depressed" when they're just a bit sad or worried. This trend for misrepresenting disorders and self-assigning labels is known as the social trivialization of mental health disorders.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the 5th manual from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). A group of researchers compiled it to categorize descriptions and symptoms. Thus, they created a comprehensive reference guide for all mental health disorders.

This provides standardized technical language so that all mental health professionals can access the same information.

It’s also important for researchers in both general and mental health. It encourages the creation of clear criteria for classification and ensures consistency in diagnosis.

Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the system ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems), which is used throughout the world.

These organizations (regardless of whether they’re diagnosing patients or working with symptomatic patients, regardless of context) originated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Importance of classification in diagnosis

French, English, and Italian doctors created symptom classifications and, at the same time, created health-care programs, hospitals, and health psychology theories, among others. They did this to respond to the problem of mental alienation. Also, at this time, the person most synonymous with German psychiatry was born: Emil Kraepelin.

Kraepelin (1855-1926) dedicated himself to researching the physiological elements of mental health disorders. These included fever and cranial trauma, among others. For Kraepelin, mental illness was merely a collection of symptoms. In other words, he was deeply interested in humanity but not in mankind.

Kraepelin’s tendency as a psychiatrist is considered as a defect nowadays. That trait was what helped create his nosology. He collated many clinical cases which didn’t simply ignore the facts of the illness, but also the history prior to the onset of the illness and the post-admission response.

Thus, this classification kick-started the development of manuals that help group various mental disorders by symptoms.

A psychiatrist reading a book.

The risk of self-diagnosis

Many of the illnesses described in these books have carried over into society incorrectly. In other words, the characteristics or clear signs of illnesses of a certain scope have been skewed leading to interpretative errors.

Here’s an example of the risk that these interpretative errors can cause. When you label someone as having a specific disorder, it’s as if you place a poster in front of them that says “I am…” followed by the disorder.

It’s possible in today’s Internet-centric world for someone with the label described above to search online and identify their symptoms. This is reinforced within their immediate circle, where they also identify with the label.

This all leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, making the illness they’ve assigned themselves a reality. Additionally, assigning a label has a calming effect.  It’s like finding the cause of a condition and saying “Now I know what’s wrong with me!”

Self-diagnosis contributes to the distortion of both the meaning and symptoms. Also, it perpetuates the trivialization of these disorders.

Five mental health disorders that are often trivialized

The general public trivializes five mental health disorders, twisting their true meaning. Additionally, in many cases, they assign these labels even with only one symptom of a disorder.

These five disorders are depression, stress, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and bipolar disorder.

Depression ≠ sadness or angst

Depressive disorders are serious illnesses, where feelings of angst and anxiety take over a person. Various feelings of uncertainty can present themselves. A person may also feel helpless, or as if they lack purpose. In addition, they may lack energy and motivation. Additionally, they may feel frustrated, have low self-esteem, notice a decline in various physical functions, and feel like a failure.

Often, depressive patients are so apathetic that they can’t face their days. It’s hard for them to get up, take a shower, eat, and have sex, and they may say that they no longer want to keep living.

It’s important to remember that angst and sadness are natural feelings that can resurge in a person. They can be reawakened by a death, problems, migration, moving, or anything that requires reflection in order to grow.

What happens is that, when someone is anxious or sad, some people pressure them to say they’re “depressed”. And that isn’t always the case.

Stress ≠ fatigue or irritability

Stress is one of the most serious disorders of our time. It’s a key cause that can start and sustain both physical and mental disorders. From a cold to cancer, the spectrum is huge.

Stress is a general adaptation syndrome. The body is trying to maintain equilibrium in a context full of disruptive stimuli.

The problem happens when one or more of these stimuli beset a person and destabilizes them. The body goes into overdrive to keep resisting this threat to its stability.

Withstanding a nervous breakdown in life has symptomatic effects that seek to curb numerous stress-related behaviors. These can include irritability, intolerance, angst, anxiety, aggression, nausea, palpitations, grinding teeth, obsessive eating, and negative thoughts, among others.

Due to the number of symptoms involved (physical, cognitive, and emotional), stress has become a mixed bag full of symptoms or isolated behaviors; without relevant analysis of stress or breakdown factors being present in a person’s life. It’s easy to slap the label “stress” on the unknown.

A woman experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Panic disorder ≠ fear, breathlessness, and palpitations

The last 10 years have seen a massive increase in anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. As if these symptoms, from a psychosocial perspective, were trying to slow down the fast-paced lifestyle society thrusts upon us.

Thirty years ago, a person would rattle off a list of symptoms such as breathlessness, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, perspiration, and pins and needles with an intense fear of dying.  There was no category for this disorder, throwing the patient into a limbo. Now, the opposite happens.

Nowadays, a person might have just one symptom and refer to it as a “panic attack”. Thus, they use the term, declaring “I had a panic attack” when, in reality, they didn’t have one.

It’s only possible to diagnose a panic attack with at least four of the thirteen symptoms set out in the psychopathological model.

Obsessive-compulsive order (OCD) ≠ attention to detail or routines

OCD is a mental disorder which is characterized by anxiety and compulsive behaviors. The person can’t stop themselves from performing certain repetitive behaviors.

To counteract this, they may develop compulsions steeped in magical thought. They may also use these acts to prevent situations from occurring that would happen if they didn’t do their rituals. Additionally, they may employ extremely detailed hygiene routines out of fear of illness and infection.

They have intrusive thoughts which they can’t control. To try to stop these thoughts, they carry out their hygiene and behavioral routines. Finally, all these ideas and behaviors combine to drive them to despair, making their anxiety even worse. This causes great suffering and angst.

However, some people believe that a person “has OCD” or is “obsessive” if they’re extremely clean or tidy. This happens because people confuse superstition or rituals, which most people exhibit, with compulsions that are indicative of a disorder.

Bipolar disorder ≠ mood swings

Bipolar disorder is a serious illness whereby people who have it experience unusual mood swings. They go from being very happy, lively, and active to feeling very sad, lacking direction, and being clearly depressed. It’s a cyclical illness where the person flips between these states.

There can be periods of normal mood in between cycles. However, in the most serious cases, they jump from cycle to cycle. The term for periods of euphoria is “manic” and for periods of sadness “depressive”.

  • In the former, there’s a variety of behaviors and traits. Examples include excitement and nervousness, racing thoughts, constant tension, irritability, insomnia, and impulsive spending.
  • Whereas in depression, there’s sadness, angst, bad moods, apathy, loss of interest, and wanting to sleep and staying in bed. Also, they may experience insomnia, sluggishness, tiredness, lack of concentration, and suicidal thoughts.

Therefore, it’s important to be careful when casually diagnosing someone as “bipolar” with no scientific backing.

Human beings aren’t linear. We live in a changing environment to which we must constantly adapt.  This brings with it mood changes, sometimes progressive, sometimes sudden. Thus, a person isn’t “bipolar” just because they’ve had a sudden mood swing.

A woman experiencing the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Conclusion

Only health professionals should carry out a diagnosis. If you don’t have any scientific experience, please stay out of it. You don’t need to label behaviors and categorize them as mental health disorders.

Labels do no good, as they hit the person hard and end up creating the personality trait as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It undermines serious illnesses to label someone when their traits don’t give the full picture.

It’s not up to you to label someone else’s behaviors unless you are an expert on the matter.