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mental health disorder

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Disorder is a clinical term describing disruption or dysfunction in one’s thinking patterns, emotions, or behaviors. It’s typically used in health care settings. Common uses of the term include “mental health disorder,” “psychological disorder,” and “psychiatric disorder.” 

A mental health issue needs to meet specific criteria in order to count as a disorder. The disturbance needs to be harmful or distressing to the person and to deviate from typical behavior. For example, mourning after a recent loss would not be considered disordered behavior, even if it results in lower mood and decreased motivation. Framing relative mental health as a spectrum, rather than a binary dividing people who are either healthy or not, encompasses a wider range of people’s experiences with mental health conditions. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists all the disorders recognized by the American Psychological Association. In the US, a mental health clinician can only diagnose individuals with the conditions listed in that book. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) is the global standard for classifying health issues. Unlike the DSM-5, which focuses exclusively on psychiatric conditions, the ICD-10 addresses all potential diseases and disorders, and its criteria may or may not match those in the DSM-5. 

Some people find the term “disorder” to be stigmatizing. They may replace the term with “psychiatric condition” or “mental health issue” instead. Yet other advocates say “issue” and “difference” don’t adequately communicate the challenges certain people face. 

As you’re weighing these choices in your own reporting, a clarifying first step, whenever possible, is to check with the person you’re writing about and mirror how they talk about themselves. If that’s not an option, you can still learn a lot by noticing whether the individual or community you’re reporting on is invested in naming a condition a disorder because that official designation is important to them — for example, to ensure civil protections from the Americans with Disabilities Act, or to qualify for insurance coverage. If they see “disorder” as a label imposed on their condition that they don’t identify with and might even critique, alternative terms could better capture their point of view. 

Also, consider the context of your reporting. If you’re writing about a scientific conference presenting new research, “disorder” might be the fitting frame, whereas if you’re presenting personal narratives, referencing “mental health issues” with specific examples might better serve your story.

Additional resources


Mental health disorder refers to a collection of symptoms that cause a disturbance in one’s mental functioning, including cognition, behavior, and emotional regulation. Some prefer terms like “psychiatric condition” or “mental health issue” instead, as “disorder” can have stigmatizing implications.