How Names of Mental Health Disorders Have Changed

Updated on July 19, 2017
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Jules Ker has been providing counseling services to clients for 12 years. She has treated many different kinds of disorders over the years.


As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I have provided therapy in a variety of settings for twelve years, including day treatment and treatment at a traditional outpatient clinic. I treat a variety of different conditions, including those mentioned in the article below.


Over the years, the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM), the book that behavioral health professionals use as a guidepost for diagnosing mental health disorders, has gone through many revisions. With these revisions have come many changes including changes in symptoms, changes to names of diagnoses, and the addition of new diagnoses. This article will focus only on the name changes that have occurred for some of the more well-known disorders such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder.

Name Changes

Bipolar Disorder

Ever heard someone be called a "manic-depressive"? How about the term "bipolar"? Well, both manic depressive and bipolar are two terms used to describe the same condition. Research indicates there was likely some concept of manic depressive disorder as far back as the ancient Greeks. The term "manic-depression" started becoming more widely used during the mid-1900's. The correct name, as it currently stands according to the DSM, is Bipolar Disorder.*


There are people who report that when they were younger they were told they had ADD. This would have likely been the correct term at the time, depending on how old the person is and when they were diagnosed. However, the name was officially changed in the newest revision of the DSM (DSM 5) to Attention- Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (yep, it's a mouthful). Each clinician has the ability to further specify whether the symptoms displayed are most consistent with inattention, with hyperactivity/impulsivity, or a combination of both. This is done by adding the specifiers of: combined presentation, predominately inattentive presentation, or predominately hyperactive/impulsive presentation. Regardless of how the symptoms manifest, the correct term that should be used by the general public when referring to this diagnosis is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, for short.


When each of these diagnoses first came out, they were considered separate diagnoses that fell under the same category titled Pervasive Development Disorders. With the recent revision to the DSM, both disorders have been grouped together to form the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. However, similarly to ADHD, there are several classification levels that can be used to help determine the most accurate diagnosis. These classification levels include severity ratings from 1 to 3, based on how much support a patient needs to help them function. In addition, a clinician can also note whether or not there are any intellectual or language impairment issues. This means that much like with ADHD, if someone was previously given a diagnosis of Asperger's the new, more accurate diagnosis would be Autism Spectrum Disorder with its accompanying severity levels.


Why Did the Names Change?

There is a relatively simple explanation for why the names of these disorders were changed. In the case of bipolar disorder and ADHD, the names were changed in order to better encompass all of the symptoms that are or can be experienced by those who have these disorders.

With regards to Asperger's/Autism Spectrum Disorder, the answer is a bit more complex. In the past, Asperger's was considered to be a higher functioning form of Autism. However, the two disorders share many of the same traits. This left room for some uncertainty when it came to diagnosing patients. One clinician could diagnosis a patient with Asperger's while another could diagnosis the same patient with Autism. It's because of these two reasons, the common set of symptoms and the trouble when diagnosing patients with either of these disorder, that the name was changed.

Now What?

It can be confusing for providers as well as the general public when changes are made the names of certain disorders/illnesses. However, these changes are often made in the best interest of all parties. Remember, it doesn't really matter the disorder/illness is called as long as it is correctly diagnosed. As always, if you are concerned that you or any of your loved ones has any of the conditions mentioned in this article please seek the help of a qualified professional in your area.


* There are actually two types of Bipolar Disorder, Bipolar I and Bipolar II. The difference depends on how long a manic episode lasts. However, the specifics of this diagnosis are not relevant to the current discussion. If you have further questions, consult a qualified professional, as mentioned above.

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This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


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