DEFINING MENTAL ILLNESS
No universally accepted definition of mental illness exists. In general, the definition of mental illness depends on a society’s norms, or rules of behavior. Behaviors that violate these norms are considered signs of deviance or, in some cases, of mental illness.
Because norms vary between cultures, behaviors considered signs of mental illness in one culture may be considered normal in other cultures. For example, in the United States, a person who experiences trance and possession states (altered states of consciousness) is usually diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness. Yet, in many non-Western countries, people consider such states an essential part of human experience. In Native American culture, it is common for people to hear the voices of recently deceased loved ones. In contrast, most mental health professionals in Western cultures would consider such behavior a possible symptom of schizophrenia or psychosis. (DEFINING MENTAL ILLNESS, Definition of Mental Illness)
The variation in behavioral norms does not mean, however, that definitions of mental illness are necessarily incompatible across cultures. Many behaviors are recognized throughout the world as being indicative of mental illness. These include extreme social withdrawal, violence to oneself, hallucinations (false sensory perceptions), and delusions (fixed, false ideas). (DEFINING MENTAL ILLNESS, Definition of Mental Illness)
Another way of defining mental illness is based on whether a person’s behaviors are maladaptive—that is, whether they cause a person to experience problems in coping with common life demands. For example, people with social phobia may avoid interacting with other people and experience problems at work as a result. Critics note that under this definition, political dissidents could be considered mentally ill for refusing to accept the dictates of their government. (DEFINING MENTAL ILLNESS, Definition of Mental Illness)