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Has the number of people with mental illness increased over the years, or has the discovery and diagnosis of such been the factor that has slowly risen?
SOME mental illness like schizophrenia is quite specific meaning that it is a clearly defined and rather obvious entity with many distinctive characteristics. Bipolar disorder type 1 is another example. Other psychiatric illnesses are more questionable because their symptoms are either vague or frequent in all people or totally subjective or because the diagnostic criteria for the illness are in flux. Bipolar disorder type 2 is a typical case. The worst problem psychiatry faces is that there are few objective criteria for diagnosis. There is no lab test for mental illness. Instead, diagnoses are made through interview of the patient by a trained healthcare worker. If you consider that issue for a moment you can begin to fathom all sorts of problems. Patients get confused Patients lie Patient’s forget Family members lie, confuse and forget Psychiatrists have biases that influence the weight t give to various statements by patients. It can be a mess. Consider for example that many adults in this country obtain years-long or life-long prescriptions for amphetamines merely by reciting an easily memorized set of symptoms to a psychiatrist. Given the popularity of amphetamines in the US this undoubtedly leads to millions of prescriptions for a disease patients do not have. So no, with only a few exceptions, mental illness diagnosis is NOT relatively accurate and highly reliable.
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But the problem is a lack of knowledge about psychiatry. There's a general lack of general knowledge about the basic science of mental illness. Most people are very unfamiliar with the scientific aspects of clinical psychiatry and psychiatry itself. So the next time someone asks you about what a mental illness is: Try to answer them without getting into details. But I can guarantee you that they will get to the real root of the problem when they realize that when they ask you what mental illness is, you can tell them that it doesn't even mean what they think it means. For most people, mental illnesses are either “not really mental” or “definitively mental.