Is it a Mental Illness or a Mental Disorder?

bb wpA few months ago, someone told me that autism was not a mental illness and that when people call it that, they are wrong. Today someone challenged me again that autism is not a  mental illness, but a mental disorder.

Is having a mental illness such a bad thing? I have bipolar disorder and it definitely is not something I would wish on anyone.  However, I believe that mental illness is considered such an awful thing because of the stigma and because people are just not educated about it.

I have a problem with the two people who were so adamant about  autism not being a mental illness.  I knew it was in the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but I did some more digging. I thought that maybe mental disorder was not the same as mental illness. Well, I found out from several sources, that it is.

Merriam-Webster defines mental disorder as “a mental or bodily condition marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, and emotions to seriously impair the normal psychological functioning of the individual—called also mental illness”

Wikipedia defines mental illness as “A mental disorder, also called a mental illness or psychiatric disorder, is a mental  or behavioral  pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not developmentally or socially normative.”

American Heritage defines mental illness as “Any of various disorders characterized chiefly by abnormal behavior or an inability to function socially, including diseases of the mind and personality and certain diseases of the brain. Also called mental disease , mental disorder .”

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) lists mental illnesses  “Find out more about a specific MENTAL ILLNESS: Anxity Disorders, AUTISM Spectrum Disorders, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Dissociative Disorders, Dual Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness, Eating Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome”

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation‘s list: 1-in-4 of Us Live With a MENTAL ILLNESS: ADHD | Anxiety | AUTISM| Bipolar Disorder | Depression | OCD | PTSD | Schizophrenia | Other Illnesses

Psych Central has autism listed under “Symptoms and Treatments of Mental Disorders.” I have already determined that the term mental disorder is synonymous with mental illness.

National Institute of Health: There are many different MENTAL ILLNESSES, including depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,  AUTISM, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each illness alters a person’s thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors in distinct ways.

The Social Security Administration lists  mental disorders: Organic mental disorders; schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders, affective disorder, intellectual disability,  anxiety-related disorders,  somatoform disorders, personality disorders, substance addiction disorders, and AUTISTIC DISORDER and other pervasive developmental disorders

Friends of Mental Health/Advocacy: There are many different MENTAL ILLNESSES, including depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each illness alters a person’s thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors in distinct ways.

Internet Mental Health lists Autism as a Mental Health Disorder

Top 10 Mental Illnesses And Their Myths lists Autism as a mental illness

List of Mental Disorders and Conditions lists Autism

DSM-5 List of Mental Disorders under heading mental disorder ( neurodevelopmental disorders)

Teen Mental Health lists under mental disorder (developmental disorders section)

Mental- of or relating to the mind Source

Disorder- to disturb the regular or normal functions of Source

Illness- an unhealthy condition of body or mind  Source

Developmental- of or relating to the growth or development of someone or something Source

Mental illness, mental disorder, developmental disorder.  As a parent, what term would you rather have your child called?  Think about it- How much of your answer is determined by stigma and society?

“It is easy to see why families whose members are afflicted by autism might hope to recategorize the condition.”  However, embracing the mental illness label would be more humane.  Insisting that it is not a mental illness is insisting that that is shameful.” Psychology Today

To put it more harshly, If someone does not think or want autism to be called a “mental illness”, I suggest they call Wikipedia, Merriam Webster, the authors of the DSM 5, NAMI, Psych Central, The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and NAMI to argue their point. Maybe instead, they could help erase the reason why they feel it should be called a mental illness or mental disorder.

It is not that autism is or isn’t a mental illness or mental disorder that bothers me. What bothers me is that people think it is so awful that their loved one is labeled as having a mental disorder or mental illness.

Note: There were a few places I did not see autism listed as a mental disorder or mental illness.  Some say that it is a developmental disorder. However, I found autism listed as a mental disorder of mental illness in the majority of the places I looked. 

If you want to describe your child as having a developmental disorder:

Developmental disorders is a group of PSYCHIATRIC conditions originating in childhood that involve serious impairment in different areas. There are several ways of using this term.[1] The most narrow concept is used in the category “Specific Disorders of Psychological Development” in the ICD-10 These disorders comprise language disorders, learning disorders, motor disorders, and AUTISM spectrum disorders. In broader definitions ADHD is included, and the term used is neurodevelopmental disorders.  Yet others include antisocial behavior and SCHIZOPHRENIA that begins in childhood and continues through life. However, these two latter conditions are not as stable as the other developmental disorders, and there is not the same evidence of a shared genetic liability Source

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3 thoughts on “Is it a Mental Illness or a Mental Disorder?

  1. I agree with you. I don’t think it should matter, the thing that matters is helping people.

    Probably people see it as different because of the signs. I mean, I know people with autism and other mental illnesses and the way people with each are treated is very different. People with things like depression or borderline personality disorder or bipolar are told that they can take control and think their way out of their feelings. People who have autism are more accepted as not having control over it.

    Having a mental illness myself, I recognize the prejudice in telling us that we have control (or don’t have it). I don’t know how to fix myself or the stigma, but that doesn’t mean I’m not trying.

    Thanks for a great post.

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