Expert advice

Paul Morgan: mental health advisor

Paul Morgan is Deputy Director of SANE Australia, the mental health charity. He is a leading expert in promoting understanding of mental illness in the community. ASK ME A QUESTION

Mental illness vs mental disorder?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004
There is no strict definition which distinguishes ‘mental disorder’ from ‘mental illness’ and the two terms are often used interchangeably these days.

Question:
What is the difference between a mental illness and a mental disorder ? Matthew

Answer:
‘Mental disorder’ means a change in how you think or feel that interferes with your ability to get on with your day-to-day life and enjoy yourself. There are many forms of mental disorder, of which anxiety and depression are the most commonly known. While these may be on a continuum of how people think and feel, the ‘rule of thumb’ test is that the thoughts or feelings are persistent and interfere with normal functioning or pleasure in life. We all know what it feels like to be worried at times, of course, but if someone has a persistent feelings of worry or dread (without real reason) that goes on for weeks, then it’s a good idea if they talk to their doctor in case they have an actual anxiety disorder which can be helped by treatment. There is no strict definition which distinguishes ‘mental disorder’ from ‘mental illness’ and the two terms are often used interchangeably these days. ‘Illness’ is sometimes used to describe conditions such as schizophrenia which have a strong biological basis, but this is not always a helpful or even accurate distinction. Rather than be concerned about terminology, it is more important for symptoms to be recognised, assessed and treated so that people can get on with their lives again – regardless of whether this is called a ‘disorder’ or an ‘illness’.

For more information see the SANE website.


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