Mental Disorders: A Spectrum Perspective 

It is well known that physical health disorders and diseases can fall on a spectrum, meaning they can vary greatly in severity. This is true regarding the difference in severity between different conditions, such as the severity of a broken leg falling lower on the spectrum than a heart attack. This can also be said about the differences in severity within the same condition; for example,  someone can have the flu and it can on one end of the spectrum be annoying and affect functioning for a few days or on the other end of the spectrum be debilitating and deadly.

I believe that mental health disorders also can be viewed from a spectrum perspective. For example, adjustment disorders and anxiety disorders are typically viewed as less severe conditions than Schizophrenia and the various Personality Disorders.

However, I think this spectrum perspective needs to be taken a step further.  Just as differences within the same condition are acknowledged in physical health, differences in severity amongst those with the same mental disorder need to be acknowledged.  The psychology field is starting to make progress in this area, as reflected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V. Specifically, Autism is now labeled and identified as a spectrum disorder, emphasizing the differences in symptom presentation amongst those with various degrees of Autism. I feel this spectrum perspective needs to be acknowledged because it helps both the general public and mental health professionals have a better understanding of disorders as well as helps clinicians improve their ability to diagnose accurately.

What really alerted me to the importance of having a spectrum perspective was my younger brother’s diagnosis of Tourette’s Syndrome.  For a long time, I was in denial. I thought that the diagnosis was inaccurate.  He didn’t have a plethora of complex motor tics, shout profanities, or jerk his head to the side randomly. All the times I had watched documentaries of people with Tourette’s, their symptoms were very visible.  My brother fit none of this.

However, I have now come to the realization that the diagnosis is likely accurate, but that his symptom severity is so mild that it wasn’t what I thought Tourette’s looked like.  I didn’t realize that the occasional mumbling words or sounds under his breathe, touching certain items such as tables and chair arms, repeating certain phrases, and angry outbursts were all symptoms of mild Tourette’s.  Now, I do. Two things helped me come to this conclusion. One, my brother is now at a point where he can identify new tics, along with the urge to tic,  and they are becoming slightly more visible.  The second thing that opened my eyes was seeing a documentary on Youtube called Living with Tourette Syndrome that showed kids and teens with Tourette’s who have a variety of tics and symptom severities. This helped me realize that Tourette’s is a spectrum disorder.

I have come to the conclusion that all mental health disorders fall on a spectrum rather than just exist or not exist. This means that it is necessary to let go of some of our preconceptions and look at people as individuals rather than just treat them as their diagnoses.




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