Mental Health Terms

Adjustment disorders
A type of condition with emotional or behavioral symptoms that occur in response to identifiable stress in a person's life.

Affective disorder (also called mood disorder)
A category of mental health problems that includes a disturbance in mood, usually profound sadness or apathy, euphoria or irritability, such as the disorder depression.

The experience of intense annoyance that inspires hostile and aggressive thoughts and actions.

Anorexia nervosa (also called anorexia)
An eating disorder characterized by low body weight, a distorted body image, an extreme aversion to food and an intense fear of gaining weight.

Medications that treat depression, as well as other psychiatric disorders. Children, teens and adults being treated with antidepressants, particularly anyone being treated for depression, should be watched closely for worsening of depression and for increased suicidal thinking or behavior. Close watching may be especially important early in treatment or when the dose is changed - either increased or decreased. Bring up your concerns immediately with a doctor.

A feeling of unease and fear of impending danger characterized by physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling and feelings of stress. In contrast to fear, the danger or threat in anxiety is imagined, not real.

Anxiety disorders
Conditions characterized by high levels of anxiety. Currently five different anxiety disorders are recognized: generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and social phobia.

Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
A behavior disorder, usually first diagnosed in childhood, that is characterized by inattention, impulsivity and, in some cases, hyperactivity.

Behavioral therapy
A form of psychotherapy that focuses on modifying observable problematic behaviors by manipulating the individual's environment.

Binge eating disorder
A disorder that resembles bulimia nervosa and is characterized by episodes of excessive overeating (or bingeing). It differs from bulimia, because sufferers do not purge their bodies of the excess food, via vomiting, laxative abuse or diuretic abuse.

A destructive pattern of excessive overeating.

Bipolar disorder

A mood disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) that is characterized by episodes of major depression and mania.

Bulimia nervosa (also called bulimia)
A condition characterized by binge eating followed by extreme measures to undo the binge (often vomiting).

A term used to describe long-term persistence. In some mental health disorders, chronic is specified as persisting for six months or longer.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy
A method of treating psychiatric disorders based on the idea that the way we think about the world and ourselves (our cognitions) affects our emotions and behavior.

Cognitive disorders
The class of disorders consisting of significant impairment of cognition or memory that represents a marked deterioration from a previous level of functioning.

Cognitive therapy

A method of treating psychiatric disorders that focuses on revising a person's thinking, perceptions, attitudes and beliefs.

A process of separating parts of the self from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. This is considered a defense mechanism.

An uncontrollable, repetitive and unwanted urge to perform an act. A compulsive act is a defense against unacceptable ideas and desires, and failure to perform the act leads to anxiety.

Compulsive overeating
A tendency toward binging on large amounts of food, followed by extreme guilt.

A mood disorder of at least two years' duration viewed as a mild variant of bipolar disorder. Cyclothymia is characterized by numerous periods of mild depressive symptoms not sufficient in duration or severity to meet the criteria for major depression interspersed with periods of hypomania.

A condition in which changes in cognition, including a disturbance in consciousness, occur over a relatively short period of time.

Beliefs such as delusions of grandeur that are thought to be true by the person having them, but these beliefs are wrong. People with delusions cannot be convinced that their beliefs are incorrect.

The refusal to accept reality and to act as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist.

A mood disturbance characterized by feelings of sadness, loneliness, despair, low self-esteem, worthlessness, withdrawal from social interaction, and sleep and eating disturbances.

The determination by a health care professional of the cause of a person's problems, usually by identifying both the disease process and the agent responsible.

The redirecting of thoughts, feelings and impulses from a source that causes anxiety to a safer, more acceptable one.


A reading disorder. A child with dyslexia reads below the expected level given his/her age, school grade and intelligence.

Dysthymia (also known as dysthymic disorder)
A mood disorder characterized by chronic mildly depressed or irritable mood often accompanied by a loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities that is present most of the time for at least two years. Many people with dysthymia experience major depressive episodes at times.

Eating disorders

Disorders characterized by abnormal eating behaviors and a distorted body image.


Chemicals in the brain that influence moods and the experience of pain.


A feeling of elation that is not based on reality and is commonly exaggerated.

A strong perception of an event or object when no such situation is present; may occur in any of the senses (i.e., visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory or tactile).

The disposition to inflict harm on another person and/or the actual infliction of harm, either physically or emotionally.


Abnormally deep or rapid breathing, often seen when someone is anxious.

An episode of illness that resembles mania, but is less intense and less disabling. Hypomania is characterized by a euphoric mood, unrealistic optimism, increased speech and activity, and a decreased need for sleep.

Self-knowledge about one's characteristics or personality. A sense of self.

A false perception; the mistaking of something for what is not.

Impulse-control disorders
Disorders characterized by the inability to inhibit impulses that might be harmful to oneself or others.

Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep when one has the opportunity to be sleeping.

Interpersonal therapy
A form of psychotherapy that focuses on a patient's interpersonal relationships; it may be used to treat depression.


A pathological compulsion or impulse to steal.

Learning disorder
When a child's academic ability is below what is expected for the child's age, schooling and level of intelligence. A learning difficulty is usually identified in reading, math or writing.

Major depressive disorder (also known as clinical depression)
A major mood disorder characterized by one or more (recurrent) episodes of major depression, with or without full recovery between episodes.


An episode usually seen in the course of bipolar disorder characterized by a marked increase in energy, extreme elation, impulsivity, irritability, rapid speech, nervousness, distractibility and/or poor judgment. During manic episodes, some people also experience hallucinations or delusions.

Manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder)
Classified as a type of affective disorder (or mood disorder) that goes beyond the day's ordinary ups and downs. Manic depression is characterized by periodic episodes of extreme elation, elevated mood, or irritability (also called mania) countered by periodic, classic depressive symptoms.

Symptoms usually found in severe major depressive episodes, including loss of pleasure, lethargy, weight loss and insomnia.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Drugs used in the treatment of clinical depression. These substances decrease depressive symptoms by stopping an enzyme that breaks down the mood stimulating chemicals in the brain.

Mood disorder (also known as affective disorder)
A category of mental health problems including a disturbance in mood, usually profound sadness or apathy, euphoria or irritability, such as the disorder major depression.

In the brain, these chemicals transfer messages from one nerve cell to another and affect mood.

A hormone that regulates blood pressure by causing blood vessels to narrow and the heart to beat faster. It also has a role in regulating mood.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
An anxiety disorder in which a person has an unreasonable thought, fear or worry that he/she may try to manage through ritualized activity. Frequently occurring disturbing thoughts or images are called obsessions, and the rituals performed to try to prevent or dispel them are called compulsions. People with OCD often become uncomfortable in situations that are beyond their control and have difficulty maintaining positive, healthy interpersonal relationships as a result.

Panic disorder (also called panic attacks)

An anxiety disorder characterized by chronic, repeated and unexpected intense periods of fear when there is no specific cause for the fear. In between panic attacks, people with panic disorder worry excessively about when and where the next attack may occur. Panic disorder may be accompanied by agoraphobia.

An uncontrollable, irrational and persistent fear of a specific object, situation or activity.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
A debilitating condition that is related to a past terrifying physical or emotional experience causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories or flashbacks, of the ordeal. People with PTSD often feel chronically emotionally numb.

A medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of mental, emotional or behavioral problems.

A specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional problems. Because psychologists are not physicians, they cannot prescribe drugs. Their role with patients usually involves testing, counseling and psychotherapy.

Involving both psychological and social aspects or relating social conditions to mental health.

The treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods, such as talk therapy.

People with bulimia engage in a destructive pattern of ridding their bodies of the excess calories (to control their weight) by vomiting, abusing laxatives or diuretics, taking enemas and/or exercising obsessively -- a process called purging.


A state of intense emotional experience associated with uncontrolled destructive behavior.

The reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses. This is considered a defense mechanism.

The recurrence of a disease after apparent recovery, or the return of symptoms after remission.

A return to the asymptomatic state, usually accompanied by a return to the usual level of functioning.

The blocking of unacceptable impulses from consciousness. This is considered a defense mechanism.

A complex mental health disorder involving a severe, chronic and disabling disturbance of the brain. The symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thinking.

A group of drugs used to produce sedation (calmness). Sedatives include sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
A commonly prescribed class of drugs for treating depression. SSRIs work by stopping the reuptake of serotonin, an action that allows more serotonin to be available to be taken up by other nerves.

The SSRI Paxil may increase the risk for birth defects, particularly heart defects, when women take it during the first three months of pregnancy, according to a 2005 advisory from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is waiting for the results of recent studies to better understand the higher risk. Discuss with your doctor about the health risks of Paxil if you plan to become pregnant or are in the first three months of pregnancy. You may want to consider taking a different antidepressant. Do not stop taking the drug without first talking to your doctor.

A chemical that transmits nerve impulses in the brain (neurotransmitter), causes blood vessels to narrow at sites of bleeding and stimulates smooth muscle movement in the intestines. It is thought to be involved in controlling states of consciousness and mood.

Serotonin and norenpinephrine reuptake inhibitors
A commonly prescribed class of drugs for treating depression, which work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine, an action that allows serotonin and norepinephrine to be available to be taken up by other nerves.


Feelings about one's self.

Social phobia
An anxiety disorder in which a person has significant anxiety and discomfort related to a fear of being embarrassed, humiliated, or scorned by others in social or performance situations.

Suicidal behavior
Actions taken by one who is considering or preparing to cause their own death.

Suicidal ideation
Thoughts of suicide or wanting to take one's life.

Tricyclic antidepressants
Drugs used in the treatment of clinical depression. Tricyclic refers to the presence of three rings in the chemical structure of these drugs.