Women’s Health – What 9 Psychological Diagnoses Actually Mean

Understanding what psychological diagnoses actually mean is a key part of being informed about mental health and wellness. In our culture of normalizing mental health symptoms, we have gotten more relaxed about using diagnostic categories more casually, and sometimes in error. Diagnoses like anxiety, depression, psychosis, obsessive compulsive disorder and addiction are some of the most common, but misunderstood, diagnoses that exist.

Women’s Health asked me to explain some key elements of several common mental illnesses, and I was very happy to help. To read the full post, CLICK HERE.


“I’m a fan of people being educated and normalizing mental health issues,” says Alicia Clark, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. “But not everyone understands what those diagnoses really mean and they’re just tossed around in our vernacular.” It minimizes people who are suffering and, in turn, almost hyper-stigmatizes them.

“We diagnose these things based on severity,” she says. “Whether or not it’s a disorder has to do with the costs in your life. When they become so high that you cannot live your life, it’s problematic.”



Depression is difficult in that the sense of hopelessness keeps people from seeking treatment, says Clark. The experience is shrouded in sadness and shame and everything is seen through a lens of failure and negativity. That’s why some of those who suffer want it all to end. The role of treatment is to inject hope: Know that just because you feel hopeless, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope.



If a loved one is having trouble separating what’s real and what isn’t, you should have them medically assessed immediately, says Clark. It’s imperative because unlike mood disorders, thought disorders do not get better on their own, they only get worse.

Schizophrenia is a thought disorder that causes people to lose touch with reality, affecting both perception and behavior, says Clark. Schizophrenic people are grossly disorganized in their actions and experience delusions that are rigidly fixed, she says. Most commonly, those delusions are based in paranoia. For example, a schizophrenic may say, “If I walk this way, the cameras will see me.” Although there are no cameras, to them, they’re 100 percent real. Because it can be so debilitating when untreated, a lot of homeless people are schizophrenic, and that’s why you’ll see them talking to themselves—they think they’re having a real conversation with someone else.

In treatment, these people have to learn not to trust their own perceptions, which is incredibly difficult, says Clark. Additionally, the medication helps in that it turns the volume down on the delusions—the voices become quieter and the hallucinations are further away. Unlike bipolar disorder, people who are schizophrenic are usually experiencing a lot of fear because it’s not a feel-good experience like that of a manic episode.



Anxiety, like sadness, is simply a human emotion, says Clark. You may feel this when you’re trying to get to work on time or about to give a big speech—that’s not the disorder. To be a full-blown disorder, the anxiety must be severe enough that it disrupts your life. That means worrying you have a heart condition and constantly going to the hospital, or feeling so anxious in a business meeting that you’re flushed and sweating. The reactions to an anxiety disorder are generally physiological in a fight-or-flight way.

Generally, anxious people are do-ers. Anxiety can be a very motivating thing in that it’s such an uncomfortable feeling, it pushes you to move on and do something else to make it go away. You should get help when you’re uncomfortable enough that anxiety is no longer helping you get through life but hindering you. If you don’t like the feeling and don’t understand where it’s coming from, that’s a problem.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

Obsessive compulsive disorder isn’t a personality disorder, but an anxiety disorder and one of the most severe, says Clark. This involves obsessive thoughts and impulses around things that are often not extremely important, like washing your hands. Often the person is aware that their obsessions are not real-world needs, but they cannot stop themselves from being excessively honed in on such thoughts and tasks.



In the age of Netflix, it seems everyone is saying they’re addicted when what they mean is they simply like something a lot. An official addiction diagnosis can only be made in regard to substances like drugs and alcohol and, recently, gambling, says Clark. This is because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders only offers diagnoses based on existing scientific studies, she says. So although we know cases of sex addiction, exercise addiction, and video game addiction are very real, we can’t offer patients an official diagnosis for that.

In order to determine if you have a problem with a substance or behavior, you should ask yourself if you can engage in it without it affecting your life negatively. Can you stop whenever you want? Is it damaging you physically? Is it damaging your relationships? Impacting your work? Additionally, tolerance can show if you’re truly addicted. If you’re building up a tolerance to something, you’ll need more and more of it to get the same effect which could lead to more hours spent playing video games, more dollars lost at the casino, or an overdose.


Alicia H. Clark, PsyD