Are mental disorders real?

How do the public view mental disorders? Do they see them as real entities with some kind of essence, or do they see them as the invention of human culture? And how does their take differ from that of mental health professionals?

To find out, Woo-kyoung Ahn and colleagues asked 30 university undergrads and 30 experts to answer questions about the nature of a selection of familiar and unfamiliar psychiatric diagnoses, such as ADHD and undifferentiated somatoform disorder, as well as about familiar and unfamiliar medical/physical disorders, such as high blood pressure and nephritic syndrome.

In general, the students and experts believed mental disorders were less ‘real’ than medical disorders. For example, most of the participants agreed that you either have a medical disorder or you don’t, but that this isn’t true for mental disorders (although a third of the experts felt it was). The experts and students also believed more strongly that medical disorders exist ‘naturally’ in the world, than do mental disorders. The familiarity of conditions didn’t make any difference to the participants’ views.

There were also differences between the groups. The students believed both medical and mental disorders have causal features that have to be removed for successful treatment, but the experts only felt this way about medical disorders. Perhaps, the researchers said, “experts’ knowledge about symptom-oriented treatment plans or the lack of agreed upon aetiology [i.e. causes] might have made them more sceptical about mental disorders”.

Ahn and colleagues concluded that these issues could have practical implications: “patients, unlike therapists, may believe a single thing can be changed to cure their mental disorders and therefore might not follow multifaceted treatment plans developed by clinicians believing in complexly caused mental disorders”.

The findings come after a group of mental health professionals in the UK recently called for the abolition of the term ‘schizophrenia’, arguing that it is scientifically meaningless.

Ahn, W-K., Flanagan, E.H., Marsh, J.K. & Sanislow, C.A. (2006). Beliefs about essences and the reality of mental disorders. Psychological Science, 17, 759-766.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “Are mental disorders real?”

  1. I find that the public in different countries have different views regarding how “real” mental disorders are. Many Chinese people, for example, downplay the “realness” of mental disorders and tend to dismiss them as moodswings etc. Americans though (I find) tend to exaggerate the effects of mental disorders, to the point where some people, who are really mentally fine, think they have mental problems and need help. Cultural differences I guess.

  2. I think the principle of the quote; “Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder” sums up the point about most “mental problems” that cannot be physically detected quite nicely.
    Two people can experience precisely the same thing, and if one chooses to let it affect him more than the other; then there we go; we have the latest victim of bi-polarism or manic depressiveness.
    A lot of these “symptoms” are things that virtually everyone has experienced sometime in their life to a greater or lesser degree, and some more frequently than others. But inevitably, if someone is going to dwell on and proselytize their emotions more than another it will seem that they suffer from the 'bigger' problem.
    Our choices ultimately dictate our state of mind. And every decision we've made, no matter how menial, contributed in some way to where we are today.
    Of course I agree there are some genuine illnesses that effect our brain, but these will generally be able to be physically proven in the same way that all other medical conditions are, regardless or not if the cause is known.
    It seems almost as though, due to the strong belief in medical professionals having the answer to most of our medically pertinent problems, that in them not wanting to seem incompetent, or let down our hopes in their globally entrenched empire, the questions or symptoms that they have no answer to will occasionally be thrown together with similar sounding symptoms, given an appropriate sounding title, and an accompanying body given to it with strategically placed medical terms.
    Of course as we are now officially diagnosed, we have just the excuse to justify our unpredictable, quirky behaviour.

Comments are closed.