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Clearing up Confusion in Mental Health Terms


Many terms related to mental health conditions are easily confused and often misused. To improve understanding and communication, psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld, Ph.D., and colleagues identified 50 pairs of terms relating to mental health that are frequently confused not only in the general media but also by students in mental health fields. Here are a few examples.

Anxiety versus fear. These are often used interchangeably, but have different meanings. Anxiety refers to the anticipation of a future concern and is associated with muscle tension and avoiding a situation. Fear is an emotional response to an immediate threat and is often associated with a fight or flight reaction. Fear will generally disappear when the threat is gone. However, anxiety tends to continue long term.

Working memory versus short-term memory. Lilienfeld and colleagues note that these terms are also often used interchangeably, but have subtly different meanings. Working memory is a group of systems for storing and managing information. Short-term memory is one system within that group that keeps information very briefly before passing it off to other systems.

Prejudice versus discrimination. Prejudice is the tendency to prejudge people based on their membership in a certain group. Discrimination refers to actions—treating someone poorly based on their membership in a certain group.

Prevalence versus incidence. When referring to the prevalence of a particular condition, such as depression, it means the proportion of the population that has that condition at a particular point in time. Incidence refers to the rate of new cases of a particular condition over a specific period of time, for example, new cases of depression in the past year.

Risk factor versus cause. A risk factor is a condition that exists before a person has a disorder and is associated with a greater likelihood of developing the disorder. For example, having a blood relative with depression is a risk factor for depression. It does not mean that the factor or condition causes the development of the disorder.

Testing versus assessment. Psychological testing involves administering formal tests such as self-report questionnaires, checklists or intelligence tests. Assessment is broader and includes review of information from multiple sources to understand a person’s challenges and to figure out the best way to addressing them. It can include formal tests as well as informal tests and surveys, medical evaluation, school or medical records, and information from interviews and observation.

Signs versus symptoms. While both terms can refer to indicators of a mental disorder, signs refer to things that can be observed; symptom refers to things that are perceived by the individual. For example, fatigue is a common symptom of depression that would be reported by the individual and slowed movement (referred to as psychomotor retardation) is a common sign of depression that could be observed by a mental health professional.

As authors, Lilienfeld and colleagues suggest, understanding specialized terminology is important to the mental health profession, as it is with any scientific discipline. But more generally, having a good understanding of the terms related to mental health can help all of us communicate about mental health issues and reduce the misunderstandings and stigma associated with mental illness.

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  • Lilienfeld, S.O., et al. 50 Differences that Make a Difference: A compendium of Frequently Confused Term Pairs in Psychology. Frontiers in Education. July 2017.


AnxietyDissociative DisordersADHDBipolar DisordersIntellectual DisabilitySleep DisordersDepressionAutismPatients and FamiliesHoarding DisorderGender DysphoriaAlzheimer’sOCDPersonality DisordersEating DisordersGambling DisorderSpecific Learning DisorderSomatic Symptom DisorderSchizophreniaPostpartum depressionAddictionPTSD


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