Mental Health Terminology

Have you ever been in a situation where your clients, friends, or family didn’t understand the mental health terminology you used? As a mental health professional and clinician, do you struggle to explain complex concepts simply and clearly? If so, then this blog is for you.

Whenever you talk about these complex terms with your colleagues, staying as close as possible to the jargon used in the field to be accurate is important. However, when communicating mental health information to laymen and clients, we must remember that they may not have a medical background or understanding of these terms. As part of a community mental health team, we ensure our clients can understand the information we are conveying.

This blog provides techniques to communicate mental health information to clients and laymen effectively. These techniques teach you to break down complex terms and explain mental illness and mental disorders more accurately. 

Dangers of These Terminologies Being Misunderstood

 mental health terminology

Misunderstanding terminologies can have serious consequences. When clients don’t understand the language used to explain research and treatment information, they cannot make informed decisions about their care, leading to misdiagnoses or incorrect treatments. Furthermore, when laymen try to interpret complex terminologies without proper guidance, they can draw wrong conclusions about their mental health conditions.

Unnecessary Stress and Anxiety

For example, a client diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder may become anxious and scared when they hear the term “manic episode” without understanding what it means. They may assume that this means they are in a constant state of mania and that their condition is much worse than it is, leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety. However, suppose their mental health clinician takes the time to explain what a manic episode is, and how it relates to their specific diagnosis. In that case, the client will better understand their condition and available treatment options.

Associating Terms With Stereotypes

Here’s another example. You posted a video on your social media and used the term “psychotic episode.” When your audience with no medical background and prior knowledge of mental disorders hears this term, they may associate it with negative stereotypes of serious mental illness, such as being “crazy” or “out of control.”

Stigma And Self-diagnosis

With the advent of social media and the internet, mental health information is more accessible than ever. Every time you post content, you run the risk of the information being misinterpreted or misunderstood by a large number of people. This can lead to widespread stigma, misunderstanding, and even harm to those struggling with mental health issues.

Some people are even self-diagnosing themselves with bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health problems they’ve seen online. This is incredibly dangerous and can lead to incorrect diagnoses, treatments, and self-management techniques, further exacerbating their symptoms.

As such, a mental health professional such as yourself must be aware of the impact of their accuracy in explaining these terms in both their online posts and their verbal communication with clients. But, how do we bridge this gap between clinical and lay language? Here are a few techniques to help you effectively communicate mental health information and simplify complex terms:

Practical techniques to use when translating complex mental health terms for better clarity and understanding

Therapy Meeting

Let us take a look at some practical techniques you can apply to make mental health terms more clear and more comprehensive. Read on and explore these tips!

Define technical terms in simple language

When communicating complex mental health terms, it is essential to define them in simple language that can be easily understood. This will help ensure your audience better understands the mental health information conveyed.

By breaking down these technical terms into more straightforward language, clinicians can explain serious mental illness and mental health disorders in a way that is correct and easy to absorb. For instance, if you were to describe a mental disorder such as depression and define it as “a mood disorder that is marked by a pervasive dysphoric state and anhedonia,” the audience might find it more challenging to comprehend, which could lead to even more confusion.

To correct this, use simple terms as if you were talking to a friend. You could explain it as “a feeling of sadness and lack of interest in activities that lasts for a long time” or “a prolonged period of feeling sad and unmotivated.” By breaking the term down into simpler language, your audience will be more likely to understand the disorder better.

Here is another example. Your client is diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You will risk being misunderstood if you define it in a way that is technical, text-book style, and out of context, such as “an anxiety disorder that involves a dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which results in abnormalities in cortisol regulation and increased activity in the amygdala and other brain regions associated with fear and anxiety.”

Who needs to hear all that, right? To solve this, you could explain it as an “anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.”, focusing on how it applies to their diagnosis. This simple definition helps the audience understand the gravity of the mental disorder/ mental illness without giving them false information.

Explain the context in addition to definitions

Providing as much contextual information as possible is key to effective communication when explaining mental health terms. This includes providing unfamiliar but relevant information in addition to the technical definitions, such as the history of the term, associated symptoms, and treatments available for mental disorders.

For example, suppose you were to explain Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) to your client. You could define it as “a mental disorder characterized by recurrent and intrusive thoughts or urges that lead to compulsive behavior.” However, including a brief overview of its symptoms, such as excessive hand washing, fear of germs/ dirt, and other repetitive behaviors, in addition to the definition, can help your audience better understand what Obsessive Compulsive disorder is and how it is it is it affects people.

Avoid Abbreviations

Using abbreviations for technical terms can make comprehending mental health concepts challenging and confusing for an audience. Abbreviations are often used in research papers and clinical settings but may not be appropriate or well-understood by the general public.

For example, when you refer to Major Depressive Disorder as MDD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as OCD, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as PSTD, your audience may not understand the difference between them or be able to connect the abbreviations to their associated mental illness.

Using full terms instead of abbreviations can help clients better understand the mental health information conveyed.

Use Analogies or Examples to Illustrate Meaning

Analogies and examples are great tools to explain a complex mental illness and terminology in a way that is easy to understand. They can provide additional context or meaning for the audience and help them connect the dots.

For example, when describing an anxiety disorder such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, instead of just giving the technical definition, you could highlight how the terms relate to a real-life situation, such as “It’s like reliving a traumatic event over and over again in your head each night when you try to sleep.” If you want to leverage your mental health services, explaining the related topics with analogies can help your audience understand the concepts better and remember them for a long time.

Ask questions to check for understanding

Asking questions is a great way to check for understanding when presenting complex mental health terminology. By asking open-ended questions, you can ensure your audience understands the information you provide.

Eating disorders have been one of the most prevalent mental health challenges facing the world today. Suppose you have explained Binge Eating Disorder (BED) to your audience. You could ask questions like “Can you tell me how BED differs from other eating disorders?” and “Can you provide an example of a binge eating episode?” This will help you gauge whether or not your audience is comprehending the information correctly.

Use visual aids or multimedia

Visual aids or multimedia to explain complex mental health terminology can be incredibly helpful, making the information easier to comprehend and remember. Clinicians can better understand mental health topics by providing visuals such as infographics, diagrams, or videos summarising the concept.

For instance, if you’re discussing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with your audience, incorporating a multimedia element such as a short video clip about the symptoms of PTSD can help them to understand the condition and its effects better. Another example is using an infographic to differentiate between bipolar disorder and major depression. This can help your audience quickly grasp the differences between the two conditions.

So, there you have it! Those are the techniques you can directly apply in simplifying complex terms. Communicating mental health terminology can be complicated, but ensuring that your audience understands what you convey is possible with the right approach. Our intentions of helping people navigate their mental health challenges can only be achieved if we use language that is easy to understand. Ultimately, practice makes perfect, so test out which technique works best for you in different scenarios until you find a method that resonates with your audience. With these tools, we hope you feel more confident discussing mental health information accurately and effectively!

As mental health clinicians, your work can sometimes be demanding and overwhelming. You may feel like you have a lot on your plate, and keeping up with everything that needs to be done can be challenging. In these moments, it is essential to remember that you don’t have to face it all alone! So, if you have a lot on your plate, don’t hesitate to ask for help. We are here to support you through content curation and repurposing so you can focus on the more essential things.

Take action today, and together, we can make a real difference in the lives of those struggling with mental health issues! Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments or connect with us through our socials. See you then!

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