Your guide to understanding mental health terminology

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the complex terminology used in the mental health space, so we’ve created a resource to help.

If you’ve ever gone to a country where you don’t speak the language, you know it can be tricky to navigate. Even the most basic exchanges are nearly impossible when you can’t communicate with a common language. For some people, the issue of mental health — especially improving mental health in the workplace — can bring up this same feeling. The words and phrases being used are often confusing and frustrating, which can make it hard to engage and move forward together.

To help bring some clarity, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most frequently used terms and questions and provided simple definitions and answers. By having a deeper understanding of this language, you’ll benefit from more productive conversations and a stronger ability to evaluate potential solutions to help your employee population.

What does DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders mean and where does it come from?

The DSM is the handbook used by healthcare professionals in the US, and elsewhere in the world, as the leading authority on when and how to diagnose mental disorders. Currently the manual is referred to as “DSM-5” because it is on its 5th edition. The DSM-5 gives professionals information on symptoms and other criteria to help guide diagnoses of mental health conditions. The DSM-5 also defines what conditions do and do not exist, and changes according to the most recent science and practices. For example, DSM-5, which is the latest version, takes cultural differences and gender into account more than previous versions.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Often shortened to GAD, this is the most common anxiety disorder. The DSM-5 begins its definition of GAD with “excessive anxiety and worry… occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance.” It also notes that the person finds it hard to control their worrying, and that the anxiety and worry need to be associated with at least three other symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, or sleep disturbance. The anxiety must be leading to functional impairment – which means that it’s bothering the patient and getting in the way of everyday life.

What is insomnia disorder?

Previously referred to as primary insomnia, insomnia disorder is defined in the DSM-5 as a complaint of “dissatisfaction with sleep quantity or quality” and must be associated with symptoms such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, or waking up earlier than desired and not being able to fall back asleep. The sleep troubles need to occur at least three nights per week for at least three months, and, as with GAD (listed above), functional impairment must be present — meaning the symptoms need to be causing the patient distress or otherwise interfering with everyday life.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?

CBT is an action-oriented type of structured therapy that gives people tangible skills to identify and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that harm their mental health. CBT is useful for a variety of conditions and is particularly helpful with anxiety disorders and insomnia. In CBT, the client learns and practices skills directly related to their individual needs. For example, someone suffering from social anxiety that involves fear in social settings might work on taking small steps towards getting comfortable with small talk. Someone with insomnia might learn how to structure their night time routine to facilitate better sleep. 

What is a digital therapeutic?

Digital therapeutics (DTx) are a class within digital health, defined as devices that “deliver medical interventions directly to patients using evidence-based, clinically evaluated software to treat, manage, and prevent a broad spectrum of diseases and disorders.” For example, Big Health makes two digital therapeutics — Daylight for GAD and Sleepio for insomnia disorder. Daylight and Sleepio are non-drug, software-based therapies that have been evaluated like a medical device or medication making them clinical-grade treatments. The best digital therapeutics are the ones that are tested and shown to be safe and effective — like Sleepio and Daylight — which have been tested in clinical trials and have been shown to deliver consistent clinical outcomes.

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