Mental Illness or Mental Defect

Dr. Lorin Bradbury, author of "Treasures from an Old Book, Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World".

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What is the difference between a mental illness and a mental defect?

Answer: A mental illness is also referred to as a mental disorder or a psychiatric illness. Generally, mental illnesses are described as a syndrome, which is a complex of variables (symptoms) sufficient to be categorized, and results in suffering and impairment in ability to function in ordinary life. The variables that make up a syndrome are generally defined by a combination of how a person feels acts, thinks, or perceives. Causes of mental illnesses are varied and in some cases unclear.

In the legal field, a mental illness is often referred to as a mental disease. Some of the more common mental illnesses, or mental diseases, are psychotic disorders, such as Schizophrenia, Delusional Disorder, or Schizoaffective Disorder. Schizoaffective Disorder displays characteristics of psychotic disorder and a mood disorder. Mood disorders include such diagnoses as Major Depression and Bipolar Disorder.

A mental defect would typically include developmental disorders, such as Intellectual Disabilities (formerly Mental Retardation), and Learning Disabilities. Once beyond the developmental stage, traumatic brain injuries and other insults to the brain would also fall under the general category of a mental defect.

Causes of a mental defect could include genetic anomalies, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a hypoxic event, or other traumatic events causing an insult to some part of the brain.

As you can see the lines are not always clear between a mental illness and a mental defect, but generally one might think of someone with a mental illness as being of Average intelligence. On the other hand, someone with a mental defect would probably possess subaverage intelligence, or at least subaverage intelligence in some area of intelligence as defined by a norm-referenced intelligence test.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected].

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