What Is A Mental Health Disorder?

With the advent of the new DSM-V in 2013, odds were about 50-50 that you could be classified as having one or more of the mental health diagnoses within its pages. As the author of this article argues, the increasing percentage of diagnosable Americans has to do with three factors. First, we are getting better at diagnosing mental health issues. Secondly, people are “sicker” today than before. And finally, the definitions for mental health disorders are beginning to involve things that were previously considered normal—or, at least, not unhealthy.

What I’d like to talk about in this post today, however, is that in order to be diagnosed with most disorders, the individual must experience a significant impairment in functioning—and/or be adequately distressed by their symptoms. A person who experiences social anxiety from time to time, but handles it such that it does not impact important areas of functioning (going to work, spending time with friends, dating), will not be diagnosed with the disorder.

Although it may not seem like it, this is a very important feature of human mental health. In other words, most of us (if not all) experience a variety of symptoms contained within the pages of the DSM-V, but only those who feel that at the current time their symptoms are interfering with work, love, and play, are going to be diagnosed.

I believe this is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates that we have put a stake in the ground with respect to what we call “healthy” and “unhealthy”—even though it is oftentimes only a matter of degree. I might experience social anxiety and you might experience social anxiety, but only the person who experiences enough of it that his or her ability to live life is compromised is going to be called “unhealthy.” Secondly, to further this last point, the fact that much of this is a matter of degree is an excellent argument for why we should not be so quick to divide people into categories. Things change over time, including the intensity of our symptoms. We should be less focused on what to call people and more focused on what has occurred to intensify the symptoms.

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