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The Harm Caused by Using Psychiatric Terms Incorrectly

Updated on February 13, 2019
Carola Finch profile image

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental illness.


Some people will look at this title and think “Here we go again. Another silly rant with demands for political correctness.” As a writer who focuses on mental health and disability topics, I tend to roll my eyes too at some of the outrageous demands for political correctness in the disability community and have written several articles on the subject.

When it comes to terminology regarding mental illness, however, I feel that as a society, we need to take a second look at the language we use and the harm that misuse of these terms can cause.

I have loved ones, friends, and people in my life with serious mental health disorders such as chronic depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. I have seen the damage done when people misuse the mental health terms such as psychotic, schizophrenic, OCD, psychopath, and bipolar. This misuse perpetuate myths about mental illness, creates stigma, blames the mentally ill for their condition, and put them down. We need to rethink our vocabulary and understand what commonly misused mental health terminology really mean.

The Negative Fallout

Let’s face it, when we call someone psychotic or bipolar, it is not to praise them. It is to criticize, ridicule, and label them as “crazy” or weak. When we call people by these terms, we are expressing our discomfort, disgust, and fear of people with mental illness. Psychiatric terms are sometimes used inaccurately criticize a people's behavior as too extreme. For example, someone who is keeps an immaculately clean house is incorrectly labeled as "OCD."

One big problem with putting psychiatric labels on people is that it oversimplifies complex medical conditions. People who use this terminology fail to recognize the seriousness of mental illness and are more likely to blame people for their symptoms. People who suffer from the symptoms of mental illness, in turn, feel like failures and do not seek the help they need.

The Myth that Mental Illness is the Patient’s Fault

A common misconception is that mental illness is the result of person’s poor choices. If they would just straighten themselves up, stop being so “psychotic” and get over it, they would be fine. The use of some terms reinforces a sense of failure in the mentally ill people because they cannot just “get over it.” Mentally ill people feel guilt and shame, that they are weak, and that their illness is their fault.

Incorrect Term Usage Reinforces Stigma

Mentally ill people probably won’t seek help because they fear no one will take them seriously or will judge them harshly. The media tends to characterize people with mental illness as being violent. Stigma keeps many people from seeking help.

Some are afraid that they will end up in a psychiatric hospital for a long time and be permanently labeled. In reality, most mental illnesses do not require long periods of hospitalization. A person with a psychotic break many be hospitalized for up to 72 hours to determine the severity of their symptoms and the correct treatment. In my country (Canada), mental health patients have strong rights in place and can refuse hospitalization beyond that in most situations.

Commonly Misused Mental Illness Terminology

Psychotic, psychosis

Some people use the term psychotic to describe what they see as unacceptable or crazy behavior. In actuality, psychosis is a specific medical term that means a person has lost touch with reality and suffers from hallucinations and delusions.

Psychotic breaks are associated with schizophrenia, and at times, bipolar disorder and other conditions. Psychosis can also be brought on by extreme stress, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors. Anti-psychotic drugs can be effective in controlling psychosis.


Schizophrenic, schizophrenia

Schizophrenia has described as the most misunderstood of all mental illnesses. The term “schizo” or “schizophrenic” are often misused in the media as well as conversations to mean a split personality, double-mindedness, and vacillating between two opinions. None of these descriptions is accurate.

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that experts feel is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The main characteristic is that patients have difficulty distinguishing fantasy and reality, which can devastating consequences for the patient and for their family and loved ones. The movie “A Beautiful Mind” showed this disorder quite well.

Schizophrenia symptoms:

  • Psychosis
  • Hearing voices
  • Hallucinations, delusions
  • Paranoia and irrational fears (believing family is plotting against them, government conspiracies)


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Some people use the term OCD to put down people for what they consider to be obsessive behavior. Actually, OCD is a disorder that causes people to feel extreme anxiety that can seriously impair their ability to function. They try to cope with repetitive thoughts, ideas, and feelings that cause tremendous anxiety by completing certain rituals like counting, or rechecking something. People with OCD did not choose to be this way and long to be free from it.

Bipolar Disorder

Some people describe people as bipolar, meaning that they are too moody. A common misperception is that people use being bipolar as an excuse to be moody and vent their feelings. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is actually a serious mental illness where people experience periods of euphoria, mania, and deep bouts of depression. Some people experience the symptoms of mania and depression at the same time, and these states can emerge multiple times a day or happen a few days a year.


Some people chose to label people as psychopaths when they act in ways that could be considered unacceptable and heinous. In reality, this disorder is a very complex condition, as the list to the right indicates.

Characteristics of psychopaths:

  • no regard for the feelings of others
  • an inability to feel deep emotions
  • blaming others for their problems
  • insincerity
  • inflated ego
  • an inability to moderate their responses to people
  • selfishness
  • an inability to make plans for the future
  • violence

Antisocial personality disorder

Hollywood tends to label movie villains such as the Annie Wilkes character in Misery and the Hannibal Lecter character from Silence of the Lambs having as antisocial personality disorder, but experts say that they don’t fall under this diagnosis. The media tends to put this label on people who commit crimes such as homicide. Antisocial personality disorder has many characteristics such as no regard for what is right or wrong, and not caring about the feelings and rights of other people.

Concluding Thoughts

Some people use mental illness terminology in a way that seems innocent, like saying a person is schizophrenic because they are torn between two points of view. However, using psychological terms to label people's idiosyncrasies trivializes serious mental illness and may perpetuate misconceptions and stigma. Patients feel as if their condition is their fault and that they need to just “get over it.” They feel shame that keeps them from seeking the help they need.

We need to stop labeling people and accept them for who they are. People who are mentally ill need people in their lives who will support them and encourage them to seek help. Medication and specialized therapies can help people to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Mental illness is not an exact science, though. It takes time to find treatments that work, and adjustments need to be made at times. Symptoms can resurface and can be challenging to overcome. In the meantime, people who struggle with mental health issues need our support, not labels.


'She's OCD!' 'He's Schizo!' How Misused Health Lingo Can Harm, Meghan Holohan, NBC News
10 most misunderstood mental health disorders Radiology Technician Schools
What Is a Psychopath?, Psychology Today, William Hirstein, Ph.D.
Top 10 Myths about Mental Health, PsychCentral, John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Carola Finch


Submit a Comment
  • Jason Tracey profile image

    Jason Tracey 

    21 months ago from Michigan

    Thank you Carol for your response. I agree that professional medical help should be sought after. I'm also not against medication and would encourage anyone suffering from a mental affliction, illness or otherwise, to seek professional help.

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comment. I am most familiar with schizophrenia via someone close to me, but have had exposure to people with other conditions such as bipolar disorder. I believe that everyone is an individual and may have a variety of symptoms that may be difficult to diagnose. It takes a lot of time, observation, and effort for medical professionals to come up with a definite diagnosis. I am not a qualified medical professional, but have been through some mental health challenges myself due to bullying and trauma such as chronic depression. I did recover without medication myself from that in part because of my strong will and a deep religious faith. I think there is a difference between mental health conditions and mental illness. Mental illness has been described by experts as a chemical imbalance in the brain. The imbalance can be helped by medications. I support people with mental illness seeking the help of a psychiatrist and taking the appropriate drugs to treat their condition, if needed. I have seen incredible improvements in the lives of people with schizophrenia, chronic depression, and bipolar disorder, particularly with antipsychotic drugs and other treatments. I have also learned that drugs such as marijuana interfere with and reduce the effectiveness of antipsychotic drugs. I hope this answers your questions. All the best on this journey.

  • Jason Tracey profile image

    Jason Tracey 

    21 months ago from Michigan

    Thank you for this, a very good read. Your description of schizophrenia, and anytime I see its symptoms relayed, always gives me pause. I suffer from a mental disorder that professionals were unable to diagnose, though they assured me it was not schizophrenia, despite having all but a couple symptoms, primarily a strong connection with reality. I've always been a very focused and analytical person, which I believe helps.

    I'd be interested in knowing your thoughts on overcoming mental disorders without the use of medication. To be fully transparent, I have toppled my own mental condition to the point of having no problem 99% of the time. I know you're not a professional on the matter (at least no indication was given that you were), I just want your thoughts.

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for sharing. I myself have seen how devastating mental illness can be. I agree that it should never be taken lightly.

  • profile image


    2 years ago from Australia

    So well put, as a Bipolar sufferer, I actually really hate when somebody says around me, "I've been so moody the past few days, I swear I'm Bipolar".

    Usually I bite my tongue, other days if I am feeling particulary foul mooded and irritable, I'll give them a piece of my mind.

    General moodiness is not Bipolar, general moodiness does not drive family and friends away and it does not irrepairably damage friendships. Whereas the aftermath of either a manic or depressive episode can and does ruin friendships, relationships and employment.

  • lambservant profile image

    Lori Colbo 

    4 years ago from Pacific Northwest

    I think mental health professionals, especially in Medicaid clinics with high volumes of clients with more serious degrees of illness, and psychiatric hospitals and crisis centers, tend to grow insensitive and lose their compassion. They develop an attitude of superiority. In session they may behave okay, but at coffee break it's a different story. There are many there who truly are there to help and have compassion.

    Working in the mental health field can be difficult and stressful after doing it for a long period of time. Because behavior is a manifestation of the disorders, and some very serious, clinicians are vulnerable to desensitization. I honestly don't know how clinicians who deal with trauma stories every day survive. But interestingly, they are not usually the ones who are so insensitive. It's usually those who help with the other disorders. A counselor friend told me once that when they hear someone say they are suicidal, it's no big deal because they hear it so often. I guess I can see that, but her eye rolling and tone made me gasp and cringe.

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    When I wrote this hub, I was targeting the general public who seems to lack understanding of the terms they bandy about, and the media. I think the media are the worst offenders when it comes to misusing psychological terminology. I am sorry to hear that some mental health professionals are also misusing these terms. So sad.

  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish MS 

    5 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

    @lambservant -

    The DSM 5 does indeed include Borderline Personality Disorder:

    www DOT dsm5 DOT org/Documents/Personality Disorders Fact Sheet DOT pdf

    Where are these clinicians receiving their training? It is not very good, it seems.

    The psychiatric social workers in my city developed methods to successfully treat BPD, when psychiatrists felt these cases hopeless in the early 1990s. Stigma may still remain.

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thank you for your comments, everyone. I feel that mental illness should always be taken seriously.

  • lambservant profile image

    Lori Colbo 

    5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Carol, for saying what cannot be said too much. I heard three people this week either on TV, radio, or in person that said they or someone else were being schizophrenic because of thinking or trying to decide between two views.

    Most mental illnesses are misunderstood by the general public and they have no idea how it hurts when they use your diagnosis (whether they know you have it or not) as an insult to someone's bad or unusual behavior.

    Borderline personality is another term that brings confusion and is misused. A clincian told me the new DSM did not put that disorder in it. I chatted with another mental health professional and mentioned a person I knew who had borderline personality and she rolled her eyes and said "Ya, those borderline's are sick. You can't do anything with them. They are hopeless." I thought how disrespectful and unprofessional to speak that way, especially since she said she had clients with it. Thank you for your efforts at being a stigma buster and an educator.

  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish MS 

    5 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

    I can attest to the importance of your statements about some professionals, Dr. Kidd - I saw what you describe in both a state operated treatment facility and two private practices. Very harmful.

  • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

    Dr Billy Kidd 

    5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

    That's sound advice.

    Working on the inside, I really haven't seen terms for illnesses and disorders mischaracterized. I have, however, seen patient abuse that is caused by people in the profession who have characteristics of narcissistic personality disorders.

    That's the most common problem in the field of mental health. People who think they are always right think they should be in charge. These folks often back stab all the way to becoming the clinical supervisors. In that position, their concern is the cash flow, not patients' health and wellbeing. And they are certain that their ideas about patient treatment are correct, despite what the clinicians say.

  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish MS 

    5 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

    The public should take your information and gentle advice in this Hub seriously.

    As a mental health professional, I have often stood aghast at the gossipy misapplication by uncredentialed individuals of the terms you mention here, as used in the media, across Internet articles, and in everyday life. I want it to stop.

    Rated this Hub up and more.


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