The Mental Health Disorders Most People Don’t Understand

Thankfully, mental health disorders are becoming less stigmatized, and not just socially. More and more health insurance companies are starting to provide better benefits for those with physical and mental disabilities. However, there’s still a lingering stigma for a few reasons. “People tend to view mental illness as a sign of weakness that people should just be able to ‘get over,’ and many view it as a title given to those who are just ‘crazy,’” Wyatt Fisher, a Colorado-based licensed psychologist, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet.

It’s also difficult to empathize with a mental condition if you or someone you know has never experienced one. “This can lead to the ‘othering’ of people with mental health disorders,” Dr. Shanthi Mogali, a double board-certified physician in general and addiction psychiatry and director of psychiatry at Mountainside Treatment Center, told Us. “As with any systematic othering of an entire group of people, prejudice and fear can dictate how individuals with mental illnesses are treated.”

To help demystify mental disorders, we talked to top experts in the fields of psychology for their insight into why certain mental disorders are so widely misunderstood.

1. Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Word ocd (obsessive compulsive disorder)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be all-consuming. | iStock.com/Elen11

When most people think of obsessive-compulsive disorder, they think of someone who’s a total neat-freak or perfectionist. In reality, OCD is much more than a quirky tic, habit, or desire to be perfect. “Symptoms of OCD can range from what we’ve seen on television — like obsessive washing of hands or arranging and rearranging items until satisfied to obsessive prayer to prevent harm or constantly checking some part of the body,” said Mogali. “These obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors can cause deep distress in the individual suffering from the disorder.” The best treatment plan for someone with OCD is psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, and certain medications.

2. Depression

Depression is an umbrella term for a wide range of mental disorders, however, someone is deemed clinically depressed when he or she can no longer function well in their day-to-day life. In addition, Mogali says most express symptoms of decreased energy, changes in appetite, sleeping, and in some cases, suicidal ideation for a sustained period of time.

“Many people fail to seek help for their depression because they don’t even realize they have it — instead, they think they’re feeling down and will ‘snap out of it,’” Mogali added. Some even see it as a weakness for which they do not deserve help. But like any mental health disorder, depression is nothing to feel ashamed of. A clinical psychologist or therapist can speak with you about what you’re experiencing and even prescribe certain medications that may be beneficial.

3. Anxiety

Depressed woman pressing her hand against her forehead

Anxiety can be completely overwhelming. | iStock.com/grinvalds

Similar to depression, social stigmas lead people to believe anxiety can go away on its own. Some even think it can be cured by adopting simple lifestyle changes, like exercising or eating a healthier diet. But most of the time, chronic anxiety requires treatment from a qualified mental health professional. “Effective treatment for anxiety disorders can help a person manage their thoughts, emotions, and behavior to improve their daily life,” Mogali explained.

A specific type of anxiety that’s been given a heavy stigma is social anxiety, or the compulsive concern that someone will blow it in social situations. Feelings of never meeting a significant other, never having friends, or never advancing professionally are all common. “People may think social anxiety has to do with lacking social skills and not knowing how to act in certain situations, but it’s actually the opposite,” Helen Odessky, psychologist and author of Stop Anxiety From Stopping Youexplained in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “People with social anxiety have good social skills, they just worry they’ll make a social mistake, act imperfectly, and fail to live up to those social rules.”

4. Bipolar disorder

Often confused with depression or schizophrenia, bipolar disorder is characterized by stark shifts in mood and energy. Those with the condition often experience periods of prolonged and profound depression that alternates with periods of excessively elevated or irritable mood. “Depressive symptoms may include depressed mood, shifts in mood states, decrease interest in activities, loss of energy, preoccupation with death or thoughts of suicide,” Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed psychotherapist, and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, told us. “Manic symptoms, on the other hand, may include a sense of exaggerated sense of self, decrease need for sleep, excessive talking and racing thoughts, and difficulty sustaining focus.”

Because mainstream society as a whole doesn’t always consider bipolar disorder a valid condition, many people go undiagnosed for more than 10 years. It’s best for someone potentially dealing with this condition to seek psychiatric treatment from a professional who can prescribe mood stabilizers or antidepressants, Mogali says.

5. Schizophrenia

Nervous Breakdown

Schizophrenia is nothing like the movies would have you believe. | iStock.com/Astova

Quite possibly one of the most stigmatized mental disorders of all, schizophrenia is often associated with violent, dangerous behavior. Mogali says this is largely due to the way schizophrenia is portrayed in film and television. “The reality; however, is that most people with the disorder are hardly considered violent, yet the unwarranted stigma is one of the biggest obstacles that keep them from seeking treatment.”

Schizophrenia is actually a brain disorder that affects thinking, feeling, and how one perceives life experiences. “The foundation of the disorder is psychosis that includes experiences of hallucination — hearing voices, perceptual distortions, unrealistic sensations — and delusions — false and fixed beliefs,” Mendez explained. While the disorder itself is incurable, symptoms can be managed and treated through medication management, psychotherapy, psycho-social support, and community involvement.

6. Dissociative identity disorder  

Dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder, is frequently associated with violence, danger, and scary plot twists in horror films and TV shows. But DID is actually very rare — only about 2% of the population have this type of disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The symptoms of DID are also quite contrary to anything close to violence or danger. “One of the biggest indicators of DID is the inability to access large parts of childhood memories and another is lost time or memory loss about recent events,” Mogali said.

There is treatment for DID, which includes medical and psychiatric evaluation as well as psychotherapy. Mogali recommends an average of five to seven years with a specially trained therapist. “This can integrate the different expressions of personality into one unified personality and is accomplished by treating the underlying trauma that caused the formation of the disorder,” Mogali explained.

7. Panic disorder

In troubles - unhappy woman in car

Woman with hands on eyes sitting depressed | iStock.com/Martinan

Panic disorder is actually fairly common, affecting approximately 6 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, people unfamiliar with the disorder misunderstand it, assuming it involves experiencing daily panic attacks. While that can be true for some, most only experience panic attacks once in a while. But they may be so fearful of having one they avoid activities that may trigger those panic attacks altogether, said Odessky. “They may even start avoiding situations or activities where they would feel unsafe if they were to have one, such as driving, shopping malls, attending concerts or crowded places, traveling far away from home, etc.”

8. ADHD

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is often perceived as a person’s intentional negative behavior to avoid responsibilities. “The belief is often that negative behaviors associated with ADHD can be controlled by the individual if he or she chooses to do so, but this is not always the case,” explained Mendez.

Symptoms include wandering off task, lacking persistence, difficulty sustaining focus, disorganized behaviors, excessive fidgeting, excessive talking, and impulsive reactivity. Extensive research consistently shows that ADHD impairs major life activities, including work. “The research supports that ADHD is a condition that results in cortical thinning in the frontal regions of the brain and reaches across the lifespan from childhood into adulthood,” Mendez added.

9. Autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder ASD written on a paper.

Autism spectrum disorder wasn’t well-understood until more recently. | iStock.com/designer491

Only until recent decades has autism spectrum disorder become more widely understood. In fact, from the 1960s through the 1970s, research for treatment of the disorder included LSD and electric shock. Today, ASD is considered a developmental disability that can cause significant social communication and behavioral challenges, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, affects approximately 1 in 68 children.

“Symptoms of ASD include struggling with social cues, lack of speech or delayed use of communication skills, poor speech quality, stilted or overly literal language patterns, and limited ability to use language for social engagement,” Mendez said. “Other symptoms include limited or absence of eye contact and poor understanding or integration of nonverbal social information.”

And despite what you may have heard, individuals who have an autism diagnosis are no more likely to be violent than any other member of society. “Violence is not a diagnostic trait associated with autism — it is an injustice to assume social-emotional differences equates to violent behaviors and acting out,” Mendez said.

10. Learning disabilities

Most people unfamiliar to the concept of learning disabilities may assume that it’s a mere title given to individuals who are lazy, not smart, or someone who may have a physical disability. But learning disabilities can affect anyone, even those with average to superior intellectual functioning based on IQ tests. “People with learning differences work hard and sometimes even harder than their peers to compensate and accommodate for learning differences,” said Mendez. “A person struggling with learning differences may score extremely well on an IQ test, but still have trouble working with number sequences, spelling accurately and comprehending reading passages.”

11. Narcissistic personality disorder

Vain business man checking his looks in mirror

Vain business man checking his looks in the mirror | iStock.com/Artsiom

Often considered to be more of a personality quirk or characteristic, narcissism is an actual disorder known by professionals as narcissistic personality disorder. “The public often thinks of celebrities, politicians, and musicians as being narcissistic and many of them can be, however, the term narcissism is thrown around too often when referring to someone who primarily thinks of themselves,” Fisher said.

Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include having an exaggerated sense of self-importance, exaggerating one’s abilities or talents, requiring constant admiration, etc. But to be considered clinical narcissism, these symptoms must create significant impairment in the person’s functioning, Fisher tells us.

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 29, 2017.]

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