Overview of Understanding Mental Disorders

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
May 1997; Reviewed: February 2004

Awareness and education of mental health issues is vital to reducing the stigma attached to mental disorders nowadays. But that education needs to based in fact and be balanced in its viewpoint.

All too often, national organizations charged with leading the way for educating people about mental disorders skew the facts and simply misrepresent the information we can glean from the current scientific evidence and research. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is one such organization, which even goes so far as to attempt to rename mental disorders as "neurobiological brain disorders," even though that terminology accidentally leaves out the other two-thirds causative factors of mental disorders (psychological and social/environmental variables). Ooops!

So let's be truthful here... Mental disorders are not caused by "neurochemical imbalances," according to today's research. The research has not shown that, plain and simple. While the possibility remains that there may be some neurochemical link to mental disorders, it is premature, unethical, and factually incorrect to suggest a direct causal link has been established already. Any doctor who uses this as an explanation for prescribing a medication is either purposely misleading their patients (which is likely unethical) or simply ignorant of the facts. You should definitely wonder about that doctor's other professional judgments and "facts," if he claims your depression comes from such an imbalance...

Mental disorders are also not caused by you, neither are they your fault. Many people still view mental disorders as a personal weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. These disorders will affect one out of every 4 adults in his or her lifetime, so this is something that needs to be better understood and dealt with realistically in today's society. Tomorrow, it could be you or someone close to you that suffers from one of these disorders... It is important, therefore, to keep an open mind.

Based upon all of our best research and knowledge to date, it appears all mental disorders have three common, equally-important factors:

  • Biology - This includes theories of "drug imbalances" in the brain, genetics, etc.
  • Psychology - Includes personality factors, developmental factors, etc.
  • Social - Includes environmental factors, social and work relationships, etc.

For most people, treating a mental disorder will include a combination of these factors, usually in two different people: someone to prescribe medication and someone to do therapy. The first person is someone to prescribe a medication to help the biological symptoms (such as lack of energy, lethargy, trouble sleeping, etc. in depression). This person may be a general practitioner, a psychiatrist, a psychopharmacologist, etc. Most mental health professionals, from first-hand experience, will recommend that if a person's mental disorder is serious, it should be treated by a knowledgeable mental health professional, not a general practitioner. That means, if a person needs to receive medications for such a disorder, the first choice is to have them prescribed by a psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist. They have a lot more training and direct experience in treating mental disorders than general practitioners do.

The second person is the professional psychotherapist who will help the other two causative factors of mental disorders, namely the psychological and social aspects of the disorder. This person is usually in the form of a licensed psychologist, clinical social worker, marriage and family counselor, or other mental health professional with appropriate training and experience in doing therapy. The person's degree doesn't appear to matter as much as your rapport with that person and the professional's level of experience. So in other words, it's very important you feel comfortable and generally at ease with your therapist. A person must be able to be open with their therapist and totally honest. Without these factors, therapy is rarely helpful or useful. Generally speaking, the more experience a therapist has, the better their ability to help you is. That experience should be in treating the same kinds of problem you're seeking help for. While a small minority of people can probably be helped with only one of these treatments, most individuals will respond best to receiving both kinds at the same time.

Don't let past fears and stigmatization prevent you from seeking needed treatment, or encouraging a loved one to seek the treatment he or she needs. Most mental disorders nowadays, with the treatment regimen outlined above, are treatable in 4 to 8 months. Yes, they may reappear at some later date within one's life, but then again, so do colds and the flu. The point is, proper treatment can help a person feel better in the short-term as well as in the long-term. Lack of treatment can result in the symptoms of a disorder taking that person over, such as hopelessness often does for someone suffering from depression.

Grohol, J.M. (May 1997). An overview of understanding mental disorders. [Online].




Last updated: 29 Mar 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Mar 2015
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