What is a Mental Disorder Anyway?

If you’re in treatment, whether it’s for an addiction or for a mental disorder, you might hear a lot of talk about your diagnosis. Perhaps you’ve been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or Alcohol Addiction or Depression, but how does the mental health field determine what a disorder is 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.  Mental disorders by definition include some sort of abnormal behavior, but abnormal here is defined in a specific way and not used critically as the word might sometimes be used in conversation.


There are four ways to determine whether behavior is abnormal. The first is whether it falls outside of a particular statistical range considered normal. For instance, if most people in the world can run a mile in 10 minutes, then that could be considered the normal range for the running speed of a human being. However, if someone can run a mile in 5 minutes or on the other end of the spectrum, let’s say 20 minutes, both the quick speed and the longer speed are considered to be statistically abnormal. 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.


However, being statistically abnormal does not immediately equate to having a disorder. For example, if an individual’s IQ is incredibly high, although it would be considered statistically abnormal, there’s no problem with being very smart!


Therefore, another requirement of abnormal behavior is whether it causes significant distress. If an individual feels depressed, anxious, fearful, or suicidal, then his or her behavior and thought pattern would be considered abnormal.


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.


And finally, abnormal behavior is any pattern that goes outside of what society sees as normal. 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.  It’s important to consider cultural differences because in some societies talking to your ancestors, even though they are deceased, might be a part of spiritual tradition.


Abnormal behavior or patterns of thought is the first indication that a mental disorder might be present. This is what clinicians look for when formulating a diagnosis. However, most therapists and psychologists can spot the typical symptoms for certain diagnoses quite quickly. To confirm their observations, professionals in the field use what is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as the medical reference for diagnosing a client.