Mental Disorder Defined

Contemporary discussions of mental health issues often use the term “mental disorder,” rather than “mental illness,” as the former is considered a more neutral description, although in professional contexts the term “psychiatric disorder” is also common.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA), the primary professional association of US psychiatrists, produces the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM. The DSM provides the standard tool for classification of mental disorders and is used by mental health professionals in the United States.

Table 1. Features and Considerations Employed in the DSM


A clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual

Is associated with present distress (eg, a painful symptom) or disability (ie, impairment in ≥ 1 important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom

Must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one

A manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual

Neither deviant behavior (eg, political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders, unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual


Other Considerations

No definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of "mental disorder.”

The concept of mental disorder (like many other concepts in medicine and science) lacks a consistent operational definition that covers all situations.





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