What Is a Psychiatric Disorder?

Enhance Your Understanding of Psychiatric Disorders

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A psychiatric disorder is a mental illness diagnosed by a mental health professional that 1) greatly disturbs your thinking, moods, and/or behavior and 2) seriously increases your risk of disability, pain, death, or loss of freedom. In addition, your symptoms must be more severe than an expected response to an upsetting event, such as normal grief after the loss of a loved one.

A large number of psychiatric disorders have been identified.

Chances are that, whether or not you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, you know something about one or more of the following examples:

When Does a Mental Health Concern Become a Psychiatric Disorder?

If you're like most people, you’ve probably had a mental health concern from time to time, such as depression following loss of a job. These concerns are typically time-limited, and eventually you start to feel better.

That’s not true of a psychiatric disorder, in which your symptoms are ongoing and frequently upsetting to you and the people around you. A psychiatric disorder also interferes with your ability to do day-to-day tasks. When the stress of trying to cope with your symptoms becomes more than you can handle, treatment typically involves a combination of medications and psychotherapy (also called talk therapy).

What Are the Symptoms of a Psychiatric Disorder?

Examples of ongoing signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders include:

  • Confused thinking
  • Reduced ability to concentrate
  • Deep, ongoing sadness, or feeling “down”
  • Inability to manage day-to-day stress and problems
  • Trouble understanding situations and other people
  • Withdrawal from others and from activities you used to enjoy
  • Extreme tiredness, low energy, or sleeping problems
  • Strong feelings of fear, worry, or guilt
  • Extreme mood changes, from highs to lows, often shifting very quickly
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia (belief that others are “out to get you,”) or hallucinations (seeing things that aren’t there)
  • Marked changes in eating habits
  • A change in sex drive
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Excessive anger, hostility, and/or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

A psychiatric disorder may also cause physical symptoms, such as headache, back pain, or stomach pain. If you’re being evaluated for a psychiatric disorder, be sure to tell your doctor about any physical symptoms you’re having, including unexplained aches and pains.

What Are the Types of Psychiatric Disorders?

The following list describes the main types (often called classes) of psychiatric disorders.

  • Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders. Psychotic disorders cause detachment from reality. People with these diagnoses experience delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking and speech. Schizophrenia is probably the best known of these illnesses, although detachment from reality can sometimes affect people with other psychiatric disorders.
  • Bipolar and Related Disorders. This group includes disorders in which episodes of mania (periods of excessive excitement, activity, and energy) alternate with periods of depression.
  • Depressive Disorders. These include disorders characterized by feelings of extreme sadness and worthlessness, along with reduced interest in previously enjoyable activities. Examples include major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which is more severe than the more widely known premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS is not classified as a psychiatric disorder.
  • Anxiety Disorders. Anxiety involves 1) focusing on bad or dangerous things that could happen and 2) worrying fearfully and excessively about them. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and phobias (extreme or irrational fears of specific things, such as heights).
  • Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. People with these disorders experience repeated and unwanted urges, thoughts, or images (obsessions) and feel driven to taking repeated actions in response to them (compulsions). Examples include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hoarding disorder, and hair-pulling disorder (trichotillomania).
  • Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders. These psychiatric disorders develop during or after stressful or traumatic life events. Examples include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.
  • Dissociative Disorders. These are disorders in which the person’s sense of self is disrupted, such as dissociative identity disorder and dissociative amnesia.
  • Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders. A person with one of these disorders may have distressing and incapacitating physical symptoms with no clear medical cause. (“Somatic” means “of the body.”) Examples include illness anxiety disorder, somatic symptom disorder (previously known as hypochondriasis), and factitious disorder.
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders. These psychiatric disorders are disturbances related to eating, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.
  • Elimination Disorders. Psychiatric disorders in this group relate to the inappropriate elimination (release) of urine or stool by accident or on purpose. Bedwetting (enuresis) is an example.
  • Sleep-Wake Disorders. These are severe sleep disorders, including insomnia disorder, nightmare disorder, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome.
  • Sexual Dysfunctions. These disorders of sexual response include such diagnoses as premature ejaculation, erectile disorder, and female orgasmic disorder.
  • Gender Dysphoria. These disorders stem from the distress that goes with a person's stated desire to be a different gender. The diagnostic criteria in this group differ somewhat among children, adolescents, and adults.
  • Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders. People with these disorders show symptoms of difficulty with emotional and behavioral self-control. Examples include kleptomania (repeated stealing) and intermittent explosive disorder.
  • Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. People with these diagnoses have problems associated with excessive use of alcohol, opioids (for example, oxycodone and morphine), recreational drugs, hallucinogens, and six other types of drugs. This group also includes gambling disorder.
  • Neurocognitive Disorders. These psychiatric disorders affect people’s ability to think and reason. The disorders in this group include delirium as well as disorders of thinking and reasoning caused by such conditions or diseases as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer's disease.
  • Personality Disorders. A personality disorder involves a lasting pattern of emotional instability and unhealthy behaviors that seriously disrupt daily living and relationships. Examples include borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders.
  • Paraphilic Disorders. Many sexual-interest disorders are included in this group. Examples include sexual sadism disorder, voyeuristic disorder, and pedophilic disorder.
  • Other Mental Disorders. This group includes psychiatric disorders that are due to other medical conditions or that don't meet all the requirements for any of the other psychiatric disorder groups.

Sources:

“Definition of a mental disorder.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth ed. American Psychiatric Association (2015).

“Mental illness.” Mayo Clinic (2015).

Nordqvist C. “What is mental health? What is mental disorder?” Medical News Today (2015).

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