The Differences in Mental Health, Illness, and Diagnosis

Mental Health | Much Ado About Mental HealthIf you don’t have a diagnosis, if you don’t have to take any psychotropic medication, and if you function relatively well in your life, perhaps you are mentally healthy. Sure, every one has problems, concerns, and challenges in life, but your ability to meet the demands of those challenges without any sort of impairment in your functioning likely indicates that you are psychologically and emotionally healthy.

Yet, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 57.7 million people suffer from a mental illness. In other words, they have a mental illness recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) and can be diagnosed. In May 2013, the American Psychological Association published a new edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standardized text and clinical reference used by psychologists and therapists across North America to diagnose their clients. The manual includes the names, features, symptoms, and demographical information on all the recognized mental illnesses, including addictions. The DSM, fifth edition, published in the Spring of 2013, twenty years after the first edition was published in 1994.

But what actually constitutes a mental illness? How does the APA define a disorder in the first place? In general, a mental disorder is a pattern of behavior or thought that is not reasonable or easily understood. It is associated with significant distress or impairment in coping with the environment.

Let’s take a look at this definition a bit more closely. Mental disorders by definition include some sort of abnormal behavior, meaning a person responds to his or her environment in an unusual way, including avoiding or neglecting it entirely. In its attempt to define a mental illness, the APA identifies abnormality in four ways:

Statistics: The first way is exploring whether behavior falls outside of a particular statistical range. When applied to mental health, someone who exhibits behavior that most of the population does not might be looked at as having a mental disorder.

Significant Distress: However, just because someone behaves in a way that most others don’t isn’t always enough to determine abnormality. The APA also recognizes abnormal behavior when it causes significant distress. If an individual feels depressed, anxious, fearful, or suicidal, his or her behavior and/or thought pattern could be considered abnormal.

Inability to Cope: Also if his or her behavior or thought pattern leads to an inability to adapt or cope with circumstances, then that might also be considered abnormal. If someone is sad occasionally but is able to function at home, work and school, his or her behavior might not be defined as abnormal and might not meet all the clinical requirements for a diagnosis of depression. The inability to enjoy life, have significant relationships, function at work, or do well in school might indicate abnormal behavior.

Socially Unacceptable: Lastly, the APA considers any behavior that falls outside of what a culture or society believes to be normal as possibly abnormal. For instance, in most societies, shouting in public to your deceased relatives might be considered abnormal, and in fact, a clinician might see that person as experiencing hallucinations or mania.  At the same time, the APA has begun to recognize cultural differences when diagnosing and categorizing certain behavior. In this case, some societies might see talking to your ancestors, even though they are deceased, a part of spiritual tradition.

Although approximately 57.7 million people suffer from a mental illness, many do not. The definition of abnormal above is defined in a specific way and not used critically as the word might sometimes be used in conversation. Because everyone will behave abnormally at some point in life, but if that behavior meets the above criteria, it could be categorized as a mental illness.

Most therapists and psychologists can easily spot the typical symptoms for certain diagnoses quite quickly without referencing the above list. To confirm their observations, professionals in the field use the manual mentioned earlier, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as the medical reference for diagnosing a client.

Fortunately, around the world, there are more children, teens, and adults that are mentally healthy. The mental health field aims to keep it this way!

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