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What is a ‘Mental’ Disorder?



To the early civilizations, ‘mental illnesses’ were the domain of supernatural forces and demonic possession. Hippocrates and diagnosticians of the 19th century favored the humours. Lunar influence and sorcery and witchcraft are timeless culprits. In the early 20th century, it was somatogenic.[i] The biological approach argues that “mental disorders are related to the brain’s physical structure and functioning.” [ii] The pharmacological approach promotes it as an imbalance in brain chemistry. The 1st Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (1952) was produced to address the influx of veteran shell shock (PTSD) and leaned heavily on environmental and biological causes. 

One only needs the American Psychological Association’s [iii] definition of neurosis to comprehend the mental health community’s pathographic focus. The 90-word overview contains the following words: distressing, irrational, obsessive, compulsive, dissociative, depressive, exaggerated, unconscious, conflicts, anxiety, disorders. The 3rd 

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-3) abandoned the word ‘neurosis’ in 1980, but it remains the go-to term in the mental health community. Its etymology is the Greek neuron ‘nerve’ and the modern Latin osis ‘abnormal condition.’ Coined by a Scottish physician in 1776, neurosis was then defined as functional derangement arising from disorders of the nervous system. 

U.S. government agencies define mental illness as a “diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria” that can “result in functional impairment which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” [iv] This ‘defective’ emphasis has been the overriding psychiatric perspective for over a century. By the 1952 publication of DSM-1, the focus had drifted from pathology (the science of the causes and effects of diseases) to pathography (the delineation of a person’s psychological disorders, categorizing them to facilitate diagnosis). ‘Pathos’ is the Greek word for ‘suffering’ and the root of pathetic, and ‘graphy’ is its biographic rendering. Pathography is the history of an individual’s suffering, aka, a morbid biography. Pathography focuses “on a deficit, disease model of human behaviour,” whereas the wellness model focuses “on positive aspects of human functioning.” [v]

Realistically, most terms for mental illness cannot be eliminated from the culture. Unfortunately, the negative implications of the term and its derivatives promulgate perceptions of incompetence, ineptitude, and undesirability. It is the dominant source of stigma, shame, and self-denigration. In deference to a wellness paradigm, we choose the word ‘disorder’―defined as a correctable inability to function healthily or satisfactorily―over historical terms of pathographic influence.

There are four stages to any illness: susceptibility, onset, gestation, and manifestation. A disorder onsets (client is infected) and manifests (client is affected)―there can be no disagreement about that. Childhood/adolescent exploitation creates the susceptibility to the onset of a disorder, and the holism of the host―mind, body, spirit, and emotions―nurtures it. 

Carl Roger’s study of homeodynamics, or the cooperation of human system components to maintain physiological equilibrium, produced the word ‘complementarity’ to define simultaneous mutual interaction. All human system components must work in concert; they cannot function alone. Integrality describes the inter-cooperation of the human system and the environment and social fields. A disorder is not biologic, hygienic, neurochemic, or psychogenic, but a collaboration of these and other approaches administered by the mind, body, spirit, and emotions (MBSE) working in concert. 

There is no legitimate argument against mind-body collaboration in disease and wellness. Emotions are reactive to the mind and body; spirit’s participation merits explanation. First, spirit is not ‘super,’ but it is a natural component of human development. While some suggest spirit as the seat of emotions and character, the three are distinct entities. Spirit forms the definitive or typical elements in the character of a person. Emotions are the expressions of those qualities, responsive to the mind and body.[vi] 

We all have disorders. They come in different intensities and affect each of us individually. There are at least nine clinical types of depression, five significant forms of anxiety, and four types of obsessive-compulsive disorder; their impacts can be mild, moderate, or severe. Some people adapt quite nicely and get on with their lives. Others incorporate it into their personalities―the cranky boss, clinging partner, temperamental neighbor. We designed this Blog for those of us whose lives are negatively impacted by their disorder. 

Childhood/adolescent susceptibility to all disorders is plausible because, statistically, 89% of onset happens during adolescence.[vii] However, because symptoms can remain dormant until they manifest in the adult, statistics are indeterminate. This paper posits that childhood/adolescent-onset or susceptibility to onset is total. Claims or ‘evidence’ that onsets occur later in life do not impact the argument that susceptibility to onset originates during childhood/adolescence. 

Anything that interferes with a child’s social development is detrimental to adolescent and adult emotional health. Childhood/adolescent exploitation or abuse is a generic term to describe a broad spectrum of experiences that interfere with their optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.[viii] Any number of situations or events can trigger the susceptibility to onset; it could be hereditary, environmental, or some traumatic experience.[ix] Inheritability is rare and susceptible to other factors, and traumatic experience is environmental.

Despite the implication of intentionality in the words’ abuse.’ and ‘exploitation,’ much can be perceptual. A toddler who senses abandonment when a parent is preoccupied could develop emotional issues[x] Onset or susceptibility to onset should never be considered the child/adolescent’s fault and may be no one’s fault.

Undoubtedly, this sociological model conflicts with moral models that claim, “mental illness is onset controllable, and persons with mental illness are to blame for their symptoms,” [xi] or that mental illness is God’s punishment for sin or amoral behavior.  

The cumulative evidence that childhood and adolescent occasions and events are the primary causal factor in lifetime emotional instability has been well-established. This exploitation interferes with the optimal physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development of the child. Most importantly, it affects our self-esteem, which administrates all our positive self-qualities (self-respect, -reliance, -compassion, -worth, and so on). These are the intangible qualities that make up our character, our goodness, our spirit. Our self-esteem is reactive to―and, in turn, impacts―our body, mind, and emotions. They all work together in concert. If one is affected, all are affected. 

Again, it is crucial to recognize the adolescent/child is not responsible for the disorder. Quite possibly, no one is at fault. Playing the blame game only distracts from the solution. The critical question is, what are we going to do about it?



[i] Bertolote, J. (2008). The roots of the concept of mental health. World Psychiatry, 7(2): 113-116 (2008). doi: 10.1002/j.2051-5545.2008.tb00172.x; Farreras, I. G. (2020). History of mental illness. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. http://noba.to/65w3s7ex

[ii] McLeod, S. (2018). The Medical Model. (Online.) Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/medical-model.html

[iii] APA. (2020). Neurosis. (Online definition.) Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  https://dictionary.apa.org/neurosis  Accessed 05 April 2020.

[iv] Salzer, M. S., Brusilovskiy, E., & Townley, G. (2018). National Estimates of Recovery-Remission from Serious Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services, 69(5) 523-528 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201700401; SAMSHA. (2017).  2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  (Rockville, MD: SAMHSA. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#:~:text=Serious%20 mental%20illness%20(SMI)%20is,or%20more%20major%20life%20activities.

[v] Mayer, C.-H., & May, M. (2019). The Positive Psychology Movement. PP1.0 and PP2.0. In C-H Mayer and Z. Kőváry (Eds.), New Trends in Psychobiography (pp. 155-172). Springer Nature Switzerland. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-916953-4_9.

[vi] Mullen, R.F. (2018). ‘Mental’ Disorders. ReChanneling.org. http://www.rechanneling.org/page-12.html 

[vii] Baron, M., Gruen, R., Asnis, l., Kane, J. (1983). Age-of-onset in schizophrenia and schizotypal disorders.Clinical and genetic implications. Neuropsychobiology,10(4):199-204 (1983). doi:10.1159/000118011; Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin,  R., Merikangas,  K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry; 62(6):593–602 (2005). doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593; Jones, P. (2013). Adult mental health disorders and their age at onset. British Journal of Psychiatry, 202(S54), S5-S10. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.112.119164

[viii] Steele, B.F. (1995). The Psychology of Child Abuse. Family Advocate, 17 (3). Washington, DC: American Bar Association.

[ix] Mayoclinic. (2019). Mental Illness. (Online.) Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968; NIH. (2019).Child and Adolescent Mental Health. (Online.) National Institute of Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/child-and-adolescent-mental-health/index.shtml

[x] Lancer, D. (2019). What is Self-Esteem? (Online.) PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-self-esteem/  Accessed 19 November 2019.

[xi] Corrigan, P. (2006). Mental Health Stigma as Social Attribution: Implications for Research Methods and Attitude Change. Clinical Psychology Science and Practice, 7(1), 48-67 (2006). Doi:10.1093/clipsy.7.1.48.

It’s Not

Your Fault!

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