It’s often that the term “mental illness” is used to blanket anyone with something some would call “off” about their current emotional or mental state. Depression, Bipolar disorders (both type I and II), as well as a litany of other disorders are called mental illnesses based on the simple fact that it has to do with an illness of the mind.
But what is a mental illness? And are personality disorders actually appropriately termed mental illness?
A mental disorder, or mental illness, is defined as a behavioral or mental pattern that leads to the inability to function on a base level in ordinary life. The reoccurrence can vary from a constant state of being to relapsing or just an occasional incident at times throughout a period in life. There are no set symptoms that categorize mental illness as they have a wide array of symptoms to the point that each is unique in its assortment of signs and classifications.
The cause of mental illness isn’t one set scenario or incident. Some mental disorders are caused by catalysts in life, while others are more genetic or chemically based. The way these disorders are treated varies depending on the cause. For instance, depression caused by recent loss is very different from depression caused by a genetic chemical imbalance. These cannot be treated in the same way.
According to the ICD and DSM, both ways of classifying psychiatric conditions, personality disorders are considered to be mental disorders, and therefore mental illness. These specific types of disorders are characterized by repetitive behaviors and inner experience, and these are expressed in ways having to do with a person’s personality. These disorders can lead someone to be introverted, extroverted, reclusive or unabashedly personable, among other traits exhibited due to the specific disorder.
These behaviors or traits are often considered to be disruptive to others and/or the own person’s social success. For instance, being overly friendly can be considered a personality trait, albeit most people would consider it an awkward one. Someone with a personality disorder that makes them extremely extroverted and attention-seeking at their detriment, like Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD), crosses the line into something that can be psychiatrically evaluated and diagnosed.
Prior to 2013, the DSM-5 actually referred to personality disorders as being on a separate access of psychiatric illness. Now they are considered to be a class of mental illness and are listed in exactly the same way.
DSM and ICD Classification Controversy
The inclusion of personality disorders into the DSM-5’s mental illness umbrella has been met with many enthusiastic nods in the psychiatric community. This doesn’t mean that some decisions aren’t thought to be off base and called into question regularly.
One example of a controversial DSM and ICD decision regards transgender individuals. The ICD actually considers transgenderism to be a diagnosable personality disorder instead of the socially acceptable definition as an identity and not a mental illness. The DSM also classifies transgender individuals as mentally ill, classifying them as gender dysphonic. These classifications have been met with ire from the LGBT community, often using them as a mirror for the outdated inclusion of homosexuality as a mental illness in the past.
While this isn’t the case with the inclusion of personality disorders into this subsection in the DSM-5, it does show that past decisions made by the manual have been called into question and changed over time.
2002 Discourse On the Issue
In 2002, an article was published in The British Journal of Psychiatry February 2002 edition by R. E. Kendell. This article called to make a distinction between mental illness and personality disorders. Using the method of assessing personality disorders using four different concepts of illness, Kendell found that there was actually no way to distinguish personality disorders and mental illness, but also found that there was no way to prove the opposite true either.
At the point in time this article was written, the descriptions and information regarding personality disorders was very limited and vague. As science and psychiatric research has expanded over time, the ability to reasonably acknowledge personality disorders as mental illnesses has been proven. In fact, Kendell’s conclusion stated “the historical reasons for regarding personality disorders as fundamentally different from mental illnesses are being undermined by both clinical and genetic evidence.”
This decision, as described in the article titled “The distinction between personality disorder and mental illness,” was also reached because there is a very vague and all-encompassing understanding of mental illness, made malleable by both the ICD and DSM intentionally. Because the description and symptom classifications of mental illnesses are so vague, it’s easily possible to categorize personality disorders under this umbrella.
With updated information about personality disorders available, it is an almost inarguable conclusion that personality disorders would indeed fall into this category based on the current definition of mental illness.