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.
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