When Is It a Quirk & When Is It Mental Illness?

Mental illnesses and quirks may overlap as both involve unique or unusual behaviors. While one person may seem quirky and fun, they may be dealing with a mental illness; conversely, someone with annoying or alternately charming personality traits is sometimes just that. It’s important to clearly distinguish between the two, as specific attributes may get confused, leading to a critical missed diagnosis.

The First Step to Differentiating the Two Is by Defining Them

Quirks are related to aspects of personality traits. Examples are harmless preferences like fear of certain animals, telling off-color jokes, always wearing striped shirts, or organizing books by color. These characteristics don’t generally hurt the person exhibiting them and cause little to no dysfunction in their daily life.

Mental illness is any condition that causes disordered behaviors and thinking. This typically interferes with the person’s ability to function optimally and may cause severe distress. Examples include anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, and more.

What Are the Major Differences?

Knowing the differences between the two can help you, or someone you know, determine if they need professional guidance, as untreated mental illnesses or behavioral disorders may seriously harm the individual and their loved ones while making eventual treatment more challenging.


Mental illnesses typically cause noticeable distress in a person’s life. For example, they may have trouble with school, work, relationships, finances, and self-esteem. Each of these areas are the cornerstone to functioning in society, and when one or more are disrupted, it may be more challenging to operate healthily in the world. Conversely, quirks don’t cause any short or long-term damage to behavior in daily life.

Example: Someone may enjoy wearing different colored socks because it’s “quirky.” Another person may feel compelled to wear specific socks and has no flexibility to change socks if needed. They may even become irrationally angry if they don’t get their way.


When a trait becomes so intense that it interferes with someone’s ability to make friends, work, or even go outside, it is a red flag for mental illness. It might also cause a loss in flexibility, so it may be a much bigger deal than expected when something isn’t to their liking. While quirks can sometimes feel significant to the individual, they aren’t disruptive to life or relationships.

Example: This can often be seen with eating disorders. Quirky eaters may be picky or only like certain foods for reasons other than taste. On the other hand, some have true eating disorders that interfere with nutrition and put their health and lives at risk.

Another example may include changes in mood. Quirky people may be experiencing some frustrations with not being able to follow their typical routine or preferences. Those with mental illnesses typically have a much stronger reaction, including violent mood swings and even threats of harm.

How Often They Occur

When someone has a mental illness, it will impact most of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in an ongoing and often volatile way. This impact may not always be negative. For example, some patients with bipolar alternate between manic and depressive states. These behaviors may impair their ability to function altogether. Bipolar disorder is typically diagnosed if symptoms persist for at least a week, while post-traumatic stress disorder is for at least one month. Quirks don’t tend to come and go, nor do they vary in intensity, but instead reside at the person’s core.

Example: One person may like to organize their kitchen pots and pans by height and color because they prefer how they look. This desire for order may not spread to other areas of that person’s life, or if it does, there is no significant consequence, nor does it inhibit other daily activities. With mental illness, someone may feel their pots and pans must always be arranged a certain way such that something bad will happen if they don’t.

When Quirks May Actually Be a Mental Illness

  1. Excessive concern. Some of us are nervous Nellies, but true paranoia may indicate an underlying disorder bipolar, schizophrenia, or anxiety.
  2. Restlessness. While no one wants to sit on a plane for hours and might get restless halfway through the flight, constant restlessness might indicate underlying anxiety.
  3. Boredom. Boredom is a part of life; we can’t chase exciting activities 24×7. However constant boredom may indicate depression and the need for further treatment.
  4. Overconfidence. Some of us think we’re great…and we may well be. Others are plain arrogant. However, excessive confidence may also be a sign of bipolar. Are these delusions of grandeur followed by periods of depression? This may be one reason to see a specialist.
  5. Alone time. A break from the hustle and bustle of life is perfectly normal, but wanting to be alone all the time may be a sign of anxiety or depression.
  6. Being talkative. We all have that friend who talks too much, which may be part of their personality. However, when the discussions switch faster than you can keep up or seemingly random topics are thrown into an already frenetic discussion, there might be something more at play.

These are just a few examples where quirkiness may crossover into mental illness. There is no cut-and-dried answer to whether someone’s quirks are something more. As such, if the quirks are problematic, it may be time to see a mental health specialist.

Contributing Factors

Biology and psychological traits often influence how mental illness occurs and presents. Where someone was raised, how they were parented, who their friends are, the trauma they may have sustained, and their family’s mental health history could all have an impact. In contrast, quirky behaviors and preferences aren’t rooted in trauma or genetics, much like any other aspect of someone’s personality.

Why Does It Matter?

You may be tempted to write off being stubborn, irritable, obsessed with certain items, or picky as simple personality quirks – and for many, they are just that. However, the danger is that you may ignore undiagnosed personality disorders or mental illness. Ignoring symptoms can lead to delayed treatment and worsening of symptoms. Without timely help, mental illnesses have the potential to be damaging in several areas of a person’s life.

What to Do if You’re Still Unsure

Are you concerned that you or someone you know is dealing with something beyond a quirky preference? It’s important to get evaluated by a mental health professional. Psychologists and behavioral health clinicians can help determine if the traits at hand are innocuous or part of a larger unacknowledged pattern. Many patients and their families avoid seeking professional help because they may consider it a sign of weakness or failure. This is not the case. Seeking professional help is instead a sign of genuine concern and maturity. After evaluation, the clinician may not find anything of concern. If they do, you always have the right to continue or end mental health care. In other words, there’s no downside to speaking to someone about it.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Professionals use established diagnostic criteria to guide them toward the correct diagnosis, and simple quirks can be quickly ruled out. On the other hand, an assessment may reveal a diagnosis, leading to a treatment plan that can drastically improve the patient’s quality of life.

When someone is being assessed, they will be asked a wide range of questions about their lifestyle, patterns of thinking, and personal health. Clinicians will look to determine symptom clusters as seen in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 (version 5)), which includes all personality disorders and related mental health conditions. This will assist with identifying clusters of behaviors and then scale them based on severity.

Sometimes, it isn’t the behavior that marks a problem but how it affects the person. People with more emotional resilience may not exhibit the cut-and-dried symptoms, and this is where an experienced clinician or psychologist is so necessary. We have seen many patients with improper diagnoses shuffled from mental health center to mental health center with little improvement.

Once a determination has been reached, therapeutic and often medical treatment will be suggested accordingly. A patient’s personal and professional functioning can often be effectively re-established by getting help from professionals experienced in the most effective treatment protocols.

A Holistic Approach

Quirks are a part of everyone’s personality. These unique attributes, mannerisms, and habits make the world more engaging and exciting. It’s also considered healthy to have mild emotional fluctuations based on these preferences. However, if you notice someone struggling with more extreme emotional states, distressing thoughts, or toxic behaviors, the admissions and clinical team at The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center are here to help.

Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

In the heart of South Florida, nestled in Tamarac, stands the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, a beacon of hope for those grappling with mental health disorders. Revered throughout Broward County and Fort Lauderdale, our center is a leader in delivering a spectrum of services that includes a Mental Health Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), a Mental Health Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), counseling, therapy, and psychiatric care. Each program is uniquely tailored to each patient’s needs, underpinned by our unswerving commitment to evidence-based care and individualized treatment.

Our team of experts specializes in treating a range of conditions including depression, anxiety disorders (encompassing generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder), bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD, schizophrenia, ADHD, and borderline personality disorder. Moreover, we offer critical support for individuals experiencing a mental breakdown and provide a nurturing mental health retreat environment conducive to recovery. At the Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center, our mission is to empower individuals to regain control of their mental health journey, equipping them with the tools they need to confidently navigate their path towards wellness. Our passion lies in helping every individual build a healthier, more fulfilling life.


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