Mental Illness: Commonly misused terms

Mental illness is a term that seems to be appearing often in the media now. On television, in the cinema, on the news, you hear people talk about depression, anorexia, psychosis1In Singapore, 1 in 12 people have a mental illness. Yet, a lot of people still do not know what they actually mean. Before going into the specific terms like depression, let’s look at what mental illness is.




Mental illness refers to health conditions (related to thinking, emotions, and/or behaviour) that prevent someone from functioning properly2. In Singapore, mental health professionals refer to something known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)3. It sets several criteria to be fulfilled for a diagnosis to be made. Sometimes, an individual can have more than one mental disorder at a time. This makes mental illness very difficult to treat. Furthermore, a lot of people think that mental illness isn’t even real, or that people choose to stay mentally ill for sympathy. To them, it’s an excuse to be lazy. In reality, mental illness is as real and scary as cancer, and nobody would choose to have cancer.

Depression and anorexia are examples of mental illness. Depression is a mood disorder, while anorexia (anorexia nervosa) is an eating disorder. A lot of people like to label others as depressive because someone is moody, or laugh at skinny people and call them anorexic if they don’t feel like eating. They don’t realise that having a symptom of an illness doesn’t mean you have the illness. Just because you’re moody or you feel depressed, doesn’t mean you have depression. Likewise, just because you have a fever, doesn’t mean you have Dengue Fever.

Psychosis refers to symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations involve hearing, feeling, seeing, and sometimes even tasting or smelling things that are not there. Delusions are strong beliefs that someone has which are irrational and proven to be false. For example, believing that you are being followed by agents tracking your every move could be a delusion. The media has made people with psychosis sound like monsters to be locked up for life – murderers, rapists, sadists… In actual fact, a lot of people with psychosis are able to function well and are not a danger. Note that psychosis is merely a symptom and not a disorder.

A quick summary:

  • Mental illness is a health condition
  • Having symptoms doesn’t mean someone has a mental illness
  • Depression and anorexia are examples of mental illness
  • Psychosis involve hallucinations and delusions, and a lot of people with psychosis are not dangerous

References, Links & Sources:

  • 1. Chong, S. A., Abdin, E., Vaingankar, J. A., Heng, D., Sherbourne, C., Yap, M., . . . Subramaniam, M. (2012a). A population-based survey of mental disorders in Singapore. Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 41(2), 49.
  • 2. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness
  • 3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

P.S.:  I chose to focus on depression because Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is the most prevalent mental illness in Singapore; anorexia because has the highest mortality rate amongst all mental illnesses; psychosis because it is greatly misunderstood.

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