A Brief Guide to These Commonly Misunderstood Mental Disorders

There are hundreds of mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While some are well-known and others not as talked about, society, by and large, tends to misunderstand mental illness.

Mental illness is not weakness, it’s not a character flaw, and it’s not a choice.

There are many factors that contribute to the development of a disorder, including genetic and environmental factors.

Many disorders are “invisible,” meaning you won’t necessarily be able to tell someone has one just by seeing the person.

It’s important to remember that OCD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders are legitimate health conditions that people experience.

Someone who is tidy or particular is not necessarily OCD. Someone who is moody does not necessarily have bipolar disorder. Someone who is acting "off" is not necessarily schizophrenic.

These disorders are among the most misunderstood mental disorders, and misconceptions about them perpetuate stigmas that prevent people from seeking help and prevent others from extending compassion.

Because of stigma and lack of education about these disorders, loved ones may struggle more to support people living with these conditions, and the public may have unfounded fear.

As with many things in life, the more information we have, the less likely we are to allow myths or common misconceptions to color our opinions.

By understanding mental illness, you will be better equipped to support and advocate for people living with mental health conditions.

Check out our guide to what these commonly misunderstood mental health conditions are and aren’t to better understand the very real effects of these disorders, show more empathy and care, and help others grow in their understanding as well:

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

It is not uncommon for people without OCD to say phrases like, “I’m so OCD about this!” but this demonstrates a weak understanding of the disorder.

Making statements such as these can lead to further misunderstandings about the disorder and can minimize its severity.

Learning about OCD is the first step to supporting those who face it daily.

What OCD Is:

  • A disorder marked by the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions
  • Symptoms can include: Obsessions, which are recurrent, persistent, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts, urges, or images that cause anxiety or distress and/or compulsions, which are repetitive behaviors (such as hand-washing, ordering of items, or double-checking something) or mental acts (such as counting or repeating words silently) to “neutralize” these obsessions
  • Obsessions can be disturbing or violent in nature, they are not pleasurable, and they are involuntary
  • The obsessions and compulsions are time-consuming, often taking up more than an hour each day
  • OCD can be distressing and interfere with daily living
  • With treatment, people with OCD can see their symptoms greatly improve and can lead fulfilling lives

What OCD Isn't:

  • Just being organized, orderly, or tidy
  • Having specific and particular preferences
  • Being meticulous
  • Perfectionism
  • Superstitions
  • Rituals
  • Quirks
  • Pleasurable
  • A choice

Bipolar Disorder

Many conceptions about bipolar disorder remain in public discourse.

What might surprise you is that bipolar disorder (which is actually more than one disorder, including Bipolar I and Bipolar II) isn’t just mood swings — it actually can cause severe and unusual changes in mood, energy, and the ability to carry out daily activities.

Understanding what bipolar disorder is, and what it isn’t, helps you to be more supportive of those who deal with it daily.

What Bipolar Disorder Is:

  • A disorder marked by the presence of manic or hypomanic episodes and/or depressive episodes
  • Depending on whether it’s Bipolar I, Bipolar II, or a third type of bipolar disorder called Cyclothymic Disorder, a person with bipolar disorder experiences manic episodes, hypomanic episodes (the same as manic episodes but a shorter time period and not as severe), and depressive episodes
  • Manic episodes can include euphoric or irritable mood, increased energy, decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, distractibility, goal-directed behavior, agitation, risky behavior, and even delusions or hallucinations
  • Depressive episodes look like what you think of when you think of depression: Loss of interest or pleasure, change in appetite, insomnia or sleeping more than usual, agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and diminished ability to think or concentrate
  • In between episodes, people with bipolar disorder can “feel normal”
  • With treatment, people with bipolar disorder can see their symptoms greatly improve and can lead fulfilling lives

What  Bipolar Disorder Isn't:

  • Moodiness or mood swings — everyone has these!
  • Periods of intense productivity followed by less
    productive periods
  • Intense creative periods
  • A personality trait
  • Enjoyable or fun


The complexity of schizophrenia may be part of why the disorder is so misunderstood. The disorder affects thinking, emotions, and behavior, but it doesn’t always look like what you might think it does.

When you have schizophrenia, your brain often tells you you’re seeing things or hearing voices that aren’t there, which makes it hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.

But people with schizophrenia don’t always experience this every day, and with treatment these symptoms can improve.

The reality is that you have probably met people with schizophrenia who you never realized lives with the disorder.

What Schizophrenia Is:

  • During the active phase of the disorder, people with schizophrenia may experience delusions, hallucinations, disorganized or incoherent speech or behavior, and/or lack of motivation
  • With treatment, people with schizophrenia can see their symptoms greatly improve and can lead fulfilling lives

What Schizophrenia Isn't:

  • Multiple personality disorder
  • Caused by bad parenting
  • Schizophrenia does not make people violent, aggressive, or dangerous — people with schizophrenia are much more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
  • Not every person with schizophrenia needs to be institutionalized
  • Not every person with schizophrenia will become homeless

Understanding mental illness is the first step to becoming an ally and advocate.

By committing to learning more about mental illness, we can collectively work to reduce the deep-rooted stigma that paints people with mental illness as dangerous or hopeless.

Article Details

March 31, 2021 5:00 PM
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