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This page introduced our basic understanding and characterisation of mental disorders. As defined by the American Psychiatric Association.

Mental disorders

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), mental disorders are conditions characterized by cognitive and emotional disturbances, abnormal behaviours, impaired functioning, or any combination of these, that cannot be explained by environmental factors alone (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). The APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a widely used classification system that provides criteria for diagnosing various types of mental disorders based on clinical observations and research evidence (APA, 2013).

The DSM-5 recognizes seven major categories of mental disorders: anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, neurocognitive disorders, and neurodevelopmental disorders (APA, 2013). Each category encompasses a range of specific diagnoses that share common features and symptoms. However, it is important to note that mental disorders are not discrete entities with clear boundaries, but rather complex phenomena that may overlap, co-occur, or change over time, a phenomenon known as comorbidity (APA, 2013).

anxiety disorders

anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions that involve excessive fear, worry, or nervousness that interfere with daily functioning. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (APA, 2022). anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems in the United States and can have a chronic course, although they may vary in intensity over time (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023).

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There are several major types of anxiety disorders, each with different symptoms and causes. Some of the most common ones are:

Panic disorder: This disorder is characterized by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden episodes of intense fear or discomfort that peak within minutes and are accompanied by physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, or dizziness. People with panic disorder may also develop agoraphobia, which is a fear of places or situations where escaping or getting help may be difficult or embarrassing.

phobias: These are irrational and persistent fears of specific objects or situations that trigger anxiety or avoidance behaviour. There are many types of phobias, such as specific phobias (e.g., fear of spiders, heights, blood, etc.), social phobia (e.g., fear of negative evaluation or humiliation in social situations), and agoraphobia.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This disorder is characterized by excessive and uncontrollable worry about various aspects of life, such as work, health, family, or finances. People with GAD may experience symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, or sleep problems.

Illness anxiety disorder: This disorder is characterized by high anxiety about one’s health, by excessive preoccupation with having an illness or acquiring it, and by behaviours associated with the presumed or feared condition (e.g., repeatedly checking oneself for possible signs of illness), yet with no significant somatic symptoms that would warrant such concern (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023).

anxiety disorders can be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Some possible risk factors include genetic predisposition, brain chemistry, personality traits, stressful life events, trauma, medical conditions, or substance use. anxiety disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both.

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Mood disorders

Mood disorders are psychiatric conditions in which the principal feature is a prolonged, pervasive emotional disturbance, such as depression or bipolar disorder. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mood disorders are divided into two categories: bipolar and related disorders, and depressive disorders. Bipolar and related disorders include bipolar disorder and its subtypes, such as bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. Depressive disorders include major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder (or dysthymia), and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Mood disorders can severely impair a person’s ability to function at work, school, and in social situations, and can interfere with a person’s relationships. Mood disorders can be assessed and treated using methods such as psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and alternative treatments (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023; Pizzagalli et al., 2018; APA, 2019).

Bipolar and related disorders

Bipolar and related disorders are a group of mental disorders that involve mood swings between mania or hypomania and depression. According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2022), there are four types of bipolar and related disorders: bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, cyclothymic disorder, and bipolar and related disorder due to another medical condition. The diagnosis of each type depends on the presence, duration, and severity of manic, hypomanic, or depressive episodes (APA, 2022).

Bipolar I disorder is characterized by at least one manic episode, which is a period of abnormally elevated or irritable mood that lasts for at least one week and impairs functioning. A manic episode may be preceded or followed by a hypomanic or depressive episode. A hypomanic episode is similar to a manic episode but less severe and shorter (at least four days). A depressive episode is a period of low mood that lasts for at least two weeks and is associated with symptoms such as loss of interest, guilt, hopelessness, insomnia, appetite changes, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts (APA, 2022).

Bipolar II disorder is diagnosed when there is at least one hypomanic episode and one depressive episode, but no manic episode. Cyclothymic disorder is a milder form of bipolar disorder that involves chronic fluctuations between hypomanic and depressive symptoms for at least two years in adults or one year in children or adolescents.

Bipolar and related disorder due to another medical condition is caused by a physical illness or injury that affects the brain and triggers manic or depressive symptoms (APA, 2022).

Bipolar and related disorders are serious mental illnesses that can affect various aspects of life, such as relationships, work, education, health, and well-being. However, with proper diagnosis and treatment, people with these disorders can manage their symptoms and live fulfilling lives (APA, 2022).

Depressive disorders

Depressive disorders are a group of mental disorders characterized by persistent and pervasive low mood, accompanied by loss of interest or pleasure, and impaired functioning in various domains of life (APA, 2019). According to the APA (2021), depressive disorders include major depression, subsyndromal depression, and persistent depressive disorder.

Major depression is diagnosed when a person has at least five of the following symptoms for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks: depressed mood, diminished interest or pleasure in activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

Subsyndromal depression is a term used to describe depressive symptoms that do not meet the full criteria for major depression, but still cause significant distress or impairment.

Persistent depressive disorder (also known as dysthymia) is diagnosed when a person has a depressed mood for most of the day, for more days than not, for at least two years (or one year for children and adolescents), along with at least two other symptoms such as poor appetite or overeating, insomnia or hypersomnia, low energy or fatigue, low self-esteem, poor concentration or difficulty making decisions, and feelings of hopelessness.

Depressive disorders are common and treatable. The APA (2019) developed a clinical practice guideline to provide evidence-based recommendations for the treatment of depressive disorders across three age cohorts: children and adolescents, adults, and older adults. The guideline suggests that psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and alternative treatments can be effective for treating depression, depending on the patient’s preferences, values, and needs. Some of the recommended psychotherapies include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), behavioural activation (BA), problem-solving therapy (PST), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Some of the recommended pharmacotherapies include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), bupropion, mirtazapine, and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). Some of the recommended alternative treatments include exercise, light therapy, St. John’s wort, omega-3 fatty acids, and acupuncture. The guideline also provides guidance on how to monitor treatment progress and outcomes using measurement-based tools.

Psychotic disorders

Psychotic disorders are a group of severe mental disorders that affect how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. They are characterized by impaired reality testing, meaning that the person has difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not. Psychotic disorders can cause delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech or behaviour, and lack of insight into one’s condition (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.-a).

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are several types of psychotic disorders, each with different criteria and features. Some of the most common ones are:

Schizophrenia: A chronic and disabling disorder that involves persistent psychotic symptoms, such as delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, negative symptoms (e.g., diminished emotional expression, avolition), and impaired functioning in various domains (APA, 2013).

Schizophreniform disorder: A disorder that is similar to schizophrenia, but lasts for less than six months and does not require a decline in functioning (APA, 2013).

Schizoaffective disorder: A disorder that combines psychotic symptoms with a mood episode (e.g., major depressive episode, manic episode), either concurrently or in an alternating pattern (APA, 2013).

Delusional disorder: A disorder that involves one or more delusions (fixed false beliefs) that are not bizarre (i.e., plausible but untrue) and do not involve other psychotic symptoms (APA, 2013).

Brief psychotic disorder: A disorder that involves a sudden onset of one or more psychotic symptoms that last for at least one day but less than one month, and are followed by full recovery (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.-b).

Substance/medication-induced psychotic disorder: A disorder that is caused by the intoxication or withdrawal from a substance (e.g., alcohol, drugs) or the use of a medication that can induce psychosis (APA, 2013).

Psychotic disorder due to another medical condition: A disorder that is caused by a medical condition (e.g., brain tumour, stroke) that can affect brain functioning and induce psychosis (APA, 2013).

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are behavioural conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviours and associated distressing thoughts and emotions (, n.d.). They can be very serious conditions affecting physical, psychological and social function. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), an eating disorder is any disorder characterized primarily by a pathological disturbance of attitudes and behaviours related to food, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Other eating-related disorders include pica and rumination, which are usually diagnosed in infancy or early childhood (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2018).

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by a persistent refusal of food, excessive fear of weight gain, refusal to maintain minimally normal body weight, disturbed perception of body image, and amenorrhoea (absence of at least three menstrual periods) in females (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). Anorexia nervosa can affect people of any age, gender, or cultural background, but it is more common in adolescent girls and young women (APA, 2022). Anorexia nervosa can have serious physical and psychological consequences, such as malnutrition, osteoporosis, cardiac problems, depression, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide (Frontiers in Psychology, 2019).

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge-eating followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviours, such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). Binge-eating involves consuming abnormally large quantities of food in a discrete period of time, while feeling a loss of control over the eating. Compensatory behaviours are intended to prevent weight gain or to undo the effects of binge-eating. People with bulimia nervosa may have distorted body image and low self-esteem, and often experience guilt, shame, and distress related to their eating habits (APA, 2022).

Binge-eating disorder

Binge-eating disorder (BED) is a disorder marked by recurring discrete periods of uncontrolled consumption of abnormally large quantities of food and by distress associated with this behaviour (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2018). According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), BED is characterized by binge-eating episodes that occur, on average, at least once a week over three months, and are accompanied by at least three of the following features: eating much more rapidly than normal; eating until feeling uncomfortably full; eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry; eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating; and feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterward. BED is associated with various physical and psychological problems, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (American Psychological Association, 2022).

Personality disorders

Personality disorders are a group of mental disorders that involve persistent and maladaptive patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and the self that interfere with long-term functioning and cause distress or impairment (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023). According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), there are 10 specific types of personality disorders, classified into three clusters based on their similarities: Cluster A (odd or eccentric), Cluster B (dramatic, emotional, or erratic), and Cluster C (anxious or fearful) (, n.d.). Some examples of personality disorders are antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and avoidant personality disorder.

Cluster A (odd or eccentric)

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Cluster A personality disorders are characterized by odd or eccentric behaviours and include paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal personality disorders (APA, 2023). paranoid personality disorder involves pervasive distrust and suspicion of others, schizoid personality disorder involves detachment from social relationships and restricted emotional expression, and schizotypal personality disorder involves acute discomfort in close relationships, cognitive or perceptual distortions, and eccentricities of behaviour (Kerns, 2020). Research on these disorders is scarce, and some experts have suggested that they should be eliminated from the diagnostic system due to their low prevalence, poor reliability, and overlap with other conditions (Williams, 2010).

Cluster B (dramatic, emotional, or erratic)

The Cluster B personality disorders are characterized by dramatic, emotional, or erratic patterns of behaviour and interpersonal functioning (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). They include antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders. People with these disorders may have difficulties with impulse control, emotional regulation, empathy, and intimacy. They may also exhibit distorted self-image, unstable relationships, and manipulative or exploitative behaviours (McMahon, 2018).

Cluster C (anxious or fearful)

Cluster C personality disorders are characterized by anxious or fearful behaviour and include avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. According to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), avoidant personality disorder involves a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation. Dependent personality disorder involves a pervasive and excessive need to be taken care of, leading to submissive and clinging behaviour and fear of separation. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder involves a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and control at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency. These personality disorders are associated with various biological and environmental factors, such as temperament, attachment, trauma, and parental behaviour (Eskedal & Demetri, 2006). The treatment options for Cluster C personality disorders include individual psychotherapy, group therapy, and pharmacotherapy, depending on the severity and comorbidity of the symptoms.

Neurocognitive disorders

Neurocognitive disorders (NCDs) are a group of conditions that affect cognitive functioning due to an underlying medical or neurological cause (APA, 2013). According to the DSM-5, there are two levels of severity for NCDs: major and mild. Major NCDs impair the person’s independence in daily activities, while mild NCDs do not. NCDs can have various aetiologies, such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular disease, traumatic brain injury, substance/medication use, Lewy bodies, frontotemporal degeneration, and others (Guerriero Austrom et al., 2016).

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease neurocognitive disorder (ADND) is a subtype of major neurocognitive disorder (NCD) as defined by the DSM-5® (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). It is characterized by progressive cognitive impairment in memory and at least one other cognitive domain, such as language, executive function, or visuospatial ability, that interferes with daily functioning. The diagnosis of ADND requires evidence of a causative Alzheimer’s disease genetic mutation or a biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease pathology, or a clinical diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease based on established criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). ADND is the most common cause of dementia among older adults and accounts for 60-80% of all cases (APA Guidelines for the Evaluation of dementia and Age-Related cognitive Change, 2021).

Vascular disease

Vascular disease neurocognitive disorder (VDND) is a subtype of neurocognitive disorder (NCD) that is caused by cerebrovascular disease affecting the brain’s blood supply. VDND can result from various vascular events, such as stroke, transient ischemic attack, or chronic hypo-perfusion. VDND is characterized by cognitive impairment in at least one domain, such as memory, executive function, language, or visuospatial skills, that interferes with daily functioning and independence. The diagnosis of VDND requires evidence of a temporal relationship between the vascular event and the onset or worsening of cognitive symptoms, as well as neuroimaging findings consistent with vascular pathology (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Guerriero Austrom et al., 2016).

Traumatic brain injury

Traumatic brain injury neurocognitive disorder (TBI-NCD) is a condition that results from damage to the brain caused by an external force, such as a blow, a penetrating injury, or an explosion (APA, 2022). TBI-NCD can cause impairments in cognitive functions such as attention, memory, executive functioning, language, and social cognition. The severity and duration of these impairments depend on several factors, such as the location and extent of the brain injury, the age and premorbid functioning of the individual, and the availability of rehabilitation services (Yeates et al., 2007).

Substance/medication use

Substance/medication use neurocognitive disorder is a condition characterized by cognitive impairment due to the chronic or acute use of psychoactive substances or medications that affect the central nervous system (APA, 2013). The disorder can affect various domains of cognition, such as memory, attention, executive function, language, visuospatial skills and social cognition.

The severity of the disorder can range from mild to major, depending on the degree of functional impairment and the number of cognitive domains affected. The diagnosis of substance/medication use neurocognitive disorder requires evidence of a substance/medication use disorder or exposure to a substance/medication known to cause cognitive impairment, as well as a temporal relationship between the substance/medication use or exposure and the onset or worsening of the cognitive symptoms (APA, 2013).

The disorder can be reversible or irreversible, depending on the type and duration of the substance/medication use or exposure, the presence of other medical or psychiatric conditions, and the availability of appropriate treatment (Goldstein & Volkow, 2002; APA, 2013).

Lewy bodies

Lewy body dementia (LBD) is a type of progressive dementia that results from the accumulation of abnormal proteins called Lewy bodies in the brain (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). Lewy bodies affect the chemical and functional activity of neurons in the brain regions that regulate thinking, memory, and movement (Halodoc, n.d.). LBD is characterized by early onset of hallucinations and delusions, marked fluctuations in cognition, and spontaneous parkinsonism (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.; Taylor et al., 2020).

Frontotemporal degeneration

Frontotemporal degeneration neurocognitive disorder (FTD-NCD) is a subtype of major or mild neurocognitive disorder that is caused by the progressive degeneration of neurons in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain (APA, 2013). FTD-NCD is characterized by changes in behaviour, personality, language, and executive functions, depending on the affected brain regions (Guerriero Austrom et al., 2016). FTD-NCD can also affect the principal neurotransmitter systems, such as acetylcholine, serotonin, and dopamine, leading to various motor and cognitive impairments (Hornberger & Piguet, 2018). FTD-NCD is diagnosed based on clinical criteria, neuropsychological testing, neuroimaging, and biomarkers (APA, 2013).

Neurodevelopmental disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders are a group of conditions that affect the development of the brain and the nervous system, and that manifest in early childhood or adolescence. They are characterized by impairments in cognitive, language, social, academic, or occupational functioning, or by the presence of atypical behaviours. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), neurodevelopmental disorders include intellectual disabilities, communication disorders, autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, specific learning disorder, and motor disorders (Abbeduto et al., 2014).

Intellectual disabilities

According to the APA, intellectual disability is “a disorder with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). This means that people with intellectual disability have difficulties in learning, reasoning, problem solving, communication, and self-care, compared to their peers of the same age. The severity of intellectual disability can vary from mild to profound, depending on the level of impairment in adaptive functioning. Intellectual disability is diagnosed through clinical assessment and standardized testing of intelligence (, n.d.).

Communication disorders

According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, communication disorders are “any disorder that affects verbal or written communication” (APA, n.d.). These disorders may impair the ability to receive, send, process, or comprehend verbal, non-verbal, or graphic language, speech, and/or communication (Johns Hopkins Psychiatry Guide, 2017; Social Sci LibreTexts, n.d.). Communication disorders may have various causes and consequences, and they may affect individuals across the lifespan. Communication disorders are studied and treated by psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and other professionals (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.;, n.d.).

Autism spectrum disorder

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term that covers a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that typically emerge in early childhood and affect social communication and interaction, as well as interests and behaviours. ASD can vary widely in severity and symptoms, and may be associated with other medical or genetic conditions. ASD was previously divided into subtypes such as autism, Asperger’s disorder, and childhood disintegrative disorder, but these are no longer considered separate diagnoses in the current diagnostic manual (APA, 2022; APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2023).

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

According to the APA, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioural condition that affects one’s ability to focus, organize, plan, and act appropriately. People with ADHD may exhibit symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity, or a combination of these, depending on the subtype of the disorder (APA, 2022). These symptoms must be present before the age of 7 and cause significant impairment in more than one setting, such as home, school, or work (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.). ADHD is diagnosed using the criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) (APA, 2013).

Specific learning disorder, and motor disorders

Specific learning disorder is a diagnosis that describes persistent difficulties in reading, writing, arithmetic, or mathematical reasoning skills that interfere with academic achievement, occupational performance, or activities of daily living (APA, 2013). The diagnosis is based on a clinical review of the individual’s developmental, medical, educational, and family history, as well as test scores and teacher observations (APA, 2013).

Specific learning disorder can be specified according to the affected academic domain: reading (dyslexia), mathematics (dyscalculia), or written expression (dysgraphia) (APA, 2013). The aetiology of a specific learning disorder is not fully understood, but it may involve genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors (McDonough et al., 2017). Specific learning disorder is often associated with impairments in attention, executive functions, memory, language, and social skills (McDonough et al., 2017). The course and prognosis of specific learning disorder depend on the severity of the difficulties, the quality of instruction and intervention, and the presence of comorbidities (McDonough et al., 2017). The treatment of specific learning disorder typically involves individualized educational plans, evidence-based instructional methods, accommodations, and remediation of associated impairments (McDonough et al., 2017).


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