Mental Health or Mental Illness: Defining Mental Disorders

East Rosebud

For a while, I’ve been engaged in a debate (sometimes just with myself) about the use of the term “mental illness.” [More on this at a later date]. Civil debates are good for the brain. There doesn’t have to be a winner or loser. Recently I remembered that we addressed this issue briefly in our 2017 revision (6th edition) of Clinical Interviewing. Here’s an excerpt, beginning on page 396:

Defining Mental Disorders

The concept of mental disorder, like many other concepts in medicine and science, lacks a consistent operational definition that covers all situations. From the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. xxx)

It’s often difficult to draw a clear line between mental problems and physical illness. When you become physically ill, it’s obvious that stress, lack of sleep, or mental state may be contributing factors. Other times, when experiencing psychological distress, your physical state can be making things worse (Witvliet et al., 2008).

Why Mental Disorder and not Mental Illness?

Many professionals, organizations, and media sources routinely use “mental illness” to describe diagnostic entities included in the ICD and DSM classification systems. This practice, although popular, is inconsistent with the ICD and DSM. Both manuals explicitly and intentionally use and plan to continue using the term mental disorder. From the ICD-10:

The term “disorder” is used throughout the classification, so as to avoid even greater problems inherent in the use of terms such as “disease” and “illness”. “Disorder” is not an exact term, but it is used here to imply the existence of a clinically recognizable set of symptoms or behaviour associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions. (1992, p. 11)

The ICD and DSM systems are descriptive, atheoretical classification systems. They rely on the presence or absence of specific signs (observable indicators) and symptoms (subjective indicators) to establish diagnoses. Other than disorders in the F00-F09 ICD-10 block (e.g., F00: Dementia in Alzheimer’s disease, F01: Vascular Dementia, etc.), there is no assumption of any physical, organic, or genetic etiology among ICD mental disorders.

Consistent with the ICD and DSM, we don’t use the term mental illness in this text. We also believe mental illness to be a more problematic term than mental disorder. In fact, often we step even further away from an illness perspective and use the phrase “mental health problems” instead. However, in the end, no matter what we call them, mental disorders are fairly robust, cross-cultural concepts that can be identified and often treated effectively.

General Criteria for Mental Disorders

The DSM-5 includes a general definition of mental disorder:

A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational, or other important activities. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 20)

This definition is consistent with ICD-10-CM. Nevertheless, significant vagueness remains. If you go back and read through the DSM-5 definition of mental disorder several times, you’ll find substantial lack of clarity. There’s room for debate regarding what constitutes “a clinically significant disturbance.” Additionally, how can it be determined if human behavior “reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning” (p. 20)? Perhaps the clearest components of mental disorder include one of two relatively observable phenomena:

  1. Subjective distress: Individuals themselves must feel distressed.
  2. Disability in social, occupational, or other important activities: The cognitive, emotional regulation, or behavioral disturbance must cause impairment.

Over the years the DSM system has received criticism for being socially and culturally oppressive (Eriksen & Kress, 2005; Horwitz & Wakefield, 2007). Beginning in the 1960s Thomas Szasz claimed that mental illness was a myth perpetuated by the psychiatric establishment. He wrote:

Which kinds of social deviance are regarded as mental illnesses? The answer is, those that entail personal conduct not conforming to psychiatrically defined and enforced rules of mental health. If narcotics-avoidance is a rule of mental health, narcotics ingestion will be a sign of mental illness; if even-temperedness is a rule of mental health, depression and elation will be signs of mental illness; and so forth. (1970, p. xxvi)

Szasz’s point is well taken. But what’s most fascinating is that the ICD and DSM systems basically agree with Szasz. The ICD includes this statement: “Social deviance or conflict alone, without personal dysfunction, should not be included in mental disorder as defined here” (p. 11). And the DSM-5 authors wrote:

Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual . . . . (p. 20)

The ICD’s and DSM’s general definitions of mental disorder and criteria for each individual mental disorder consist of carefully studied, meticulously outlined, and politically influenced subjective judgments. Science, logic, philosophy, and politics are involved. This is an important perspective to keep in mind as we continue down the road toward clinical interviewing as a method for diagnosis and treatment planning.

Why Diagnose?

Like Szasz (1961, 1970), many of our students want to reject diagnosis. They’re critical of and cynical about diagnostic systems and believe that applying diagnoses dehumanizes clients, ignoring their individual qualities. We empathize with our students’ complaints, commiserate about problems associated with diagnosing unique individuals, and criticize inappropriate diagnostic proliferation (e.g., bipolar disorder in young people). But, in the end, we continue to value and teach diagnostic assessment strategies and procedures, justifying ourselves with both philosophical and practical arguments.

Some of the benefits of education and training in diagnosis follow:

  • Clinicians are encouraged to closely observe and monitor specific client symptoms and diagnostic indicators
  • Accurate diagnosis improves prediction of client prognosis
  • Treatments can be developed for specific diagnoses
  • Communication with other professionals and third-party payers can be more efficient
  • Research on the detection, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders is facilitated

Although we advise maintaining skepticism regarding diagnostic labels, having knowledge about mental disorders is a professional requirement.

It seems ironic, but sometimes labels are a great relief for clients. When clients experience confusing and frightening symptoms, they often feel alone and uniquely troubled. It can be a big relief to be diagnosed, to have their problems named, categorized, and defined. It can be comforting to realize that others—many others—have reacted to trauma in similar ways, experienced depression in similar ways, or developed similar irrational thoughts or problematic compulsions. Diagnosis can imply hope (Mulligan, MacCulloch, Good, & Nicholas, 2012).



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