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What Does It Mean to Be Mentally Unstable?

what is a mentally unstable person

It’s common to hear the phrase “mentally unstable” when referring to people who are struggling with their mental health. However, this description is not an official diagnosis, nor is it an appropriate phrase to use. In fact, calling someone (including yourself!) mentally unstable can be highly stigmatizing and demeaning, leading to misconceptions about mental illness. Let’s explore what mentally unstable means, how it’s used, and answer other frequently asked questions about “mental instability.”

The Meaning of “Mentally Unstable”

“Mentally unstable” is a very broad term that is commonly used to describe people who are battling a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety. Typically, it means that a person is showing signs of mental distress, exhibiting erratic behavior, or experiencing irregular emotions. In a way, being “mentally unstable” is the opposite of being “mentally healthy.”

However, mental instability is not a clinical diagnosis. In fact, it is an outdated term that often puts a negative label on those who are struggling. For this reason, we prefer to say that a person is facing a “mental health disorder” – this is an official diagnosis, not a label that defines/confines them.

Why is it Bad to Say Mentally Unstable?

Using the phrase “mentally unstable” – whether you’re referring to another person or yourself – can be harmful in several ways. At a high level, “mentally stable” implies that a person lacks stability and strength because of their mental health condition. However, not every mental illness involves instability, and many people living with mental health conditions have meaningful, productive lives.

Below are some common reasons why we recommend avoiding the label “mentally unstable” in your conversations:

  • It is stigmatizing. “Mentally unstable” carries a negative connotation and can perpetuate the stigma around mental health issues. Those struggling might feel labeled, defined, or judged, and these negative feelings might prevent them from seeking treatment.
  • It is dehumanizing. When you spew out words like “mentally unstable,” you immediately put a label on a person and fail to acknowledge their experience. Rather than seeing the whole person, this language implies that you see them only for their mental health struggles.
  • The term is very vague. “Mentally unstable” is a blanket statement that assumes all people who experience mental illness struggle with instability and other similar symptoms. However, this is not accurate. There are a wide range of mental health conditions, all with their own complexities. “Mentally unstable” does not describe a person’s specific situation.
  • It can be misleading. Because there is no specificity around a “mentally unstable” label, the term can also lead to misconceptions about mental health. People might assume that all people struggling with depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other mental health issues are also unstable. However, as noted above, this is simply not true—everyone is unique, and many people with mental health disorders go on to lead stable, fulfilling lives.

What is the Alternative Terminology for Mentally Unstable?

Because “mentally unstable” is a problematic label, we recommend using person-centric language to describe people who might be struggling. For example, you might say “this person with depression” or “this woman facing an anxiety disorder” rather than resorting to the quick “mentally unstable” phrase.

Mentally Unstable vs. Mental Illness: What’s the Difference?

Being mentally unstable and struggling with a mental illness are not one-in-the-same. While “mentally unstable” and “mentally ill” might be used interchangeably, there are key differences between these phrases and their use.

Mentally unstable is a non-clinical term that lacks specific and formal definitions in health today. This phrase carries a negative connotation and implies a person is unpredictable or dangerous. It also does not encompass the breadth of symptoms, or the potential severity, or mental illnesses.

Mental illness is a clinical term used to describe someone who is diagnosed with a mental health condition like depression, post-traumatic-stress-disorder, or anxiety. It is diagnosis-based, meaning a person has officially been evaluated and diagnosed by a mental health professional. 

In general, using the term “mental illness” or even “mental health condition” is more neutral and widely accepted than “mentally unstable” on its own. To some extent, mental instability is a symptom of mental illness, but it cannot be broadly applied to anyone who is experiencing mental health issues.

What are the Signs of a Mentally Unstable Person?

Of course, you might be here now wondering, “What are the symptoms of being mentally unstable?” and whether your loved one (or yourself) falls into this category.

Mental instability, more accurately known as a mental health condition, can manifest in a variety of ways. A person might experience mood swings, persistent worry, irrational fears, unpredictable behaviors, or an inability to concentrate. They might encounter delusions or hallucinations, exhibit aggressive or violent behavior, or share suicidal thoughts. The specific symptoms will vary depending on a person’s mental health disorder(s). And for this reason, being “mentally unstable” is not enough. Mental health disorders are more complex than a mentally unstable label, because everyone will experience them differently.

Below are some of the most common signs of a mental health condition. Again, these will vary significantly depending on the diagnosis. However, if you are wondering whether you’re loved one is mentally unstable and in need of professional support, these are some signs to look for:

  • Sudden and extreme mood changes
  • Persistent anxiety or intense paranoia
  • Constant feelings of sadness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Difficulty forming or maintaining relationships
  • Aggressive or destructive behavior
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Inability to cope with everyday problems
  • Changes in appearance and eating habits
  • Unexplainable physical symptoms, such as a headache
  • Self-harm and suicidal ideation

If you or your loved one is showing the above signs, it is important to get help. 

Does a Mentally Unstable Person Need Treatment?

Whether or not a person needs mental health treatment will depend on the severity of their symptoms – for example, how long they have persisted and how much those symptoms are disrupting their everyday life and well-being. If a mentally unstable person has been experiencing disruptive symptoms for more than two weeks, for example, it could indicate a more official mental health disorder.

However, it’s important to note that anyone can benefit from mental health treatment. Therapy offers a multitude of benefits for people struggling with sadness, grief, anxiety, relationship issues, substance abuse, or other related mental health problems. You do not need to hit your “low” to consider treatment, and you do not need to wait until symptoms get severe. You can go to therapy or treatment at any point, if and when you are ready.

If you or your loved one is in need of professional assistance, and you do not know who to call, you may always contact Turnbridge for help. Turnbridge is a leading mental health treatment provider for adolescents and young adults. We can listen to your concerns, understand your needs, and help you decide the next best steps for you and your family. Learn more by contacting us at 877-581-1793.