The Differences between
Medical Diseases and
Psychiatric Disorders

Medical diseases and psychiatric disorders are not the same thing.

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To help you understand the differences, let's take a look at definitions and examples of each of these terms.

Medical Diseases

A medical disease is a condition in which part of the body is not working normally.

A medical disease can affect any body part, organ, or system.

Medical diseases, such as diabetes or cancer, can be diagnosed with tests:
  • blood tests
  • x-raysmedical tests
  • lab tests
To identify a medical disease, doctors look for symptoms and then find a cause. At this point, they can treat the disease.

To help you understand, let's look at diabetes.

Diabetes is a real medical disease.
People who have diabetes have too much glucose (sugar) in their blood.

Diabetes symptoms may include:
  • increased thirst
  • extreme hunger
  • unexplained weight loss
  • blurred vision
  • fatigue
  • frequent infections
With these symptoms, a doctor may run actual tests to determine if the patient has a type of diabetes (such as testing blood sugar levels and insulin levels).

These blood tests can determine if a patient suffers from diabetes, a real medical disease. After the diagnosis, doctors can recommend treatment, which may include prescription drugs.

Psychiatric Disorders

Psychiatric disorders, or mental illnesses, cannot be diagnosed with any type of medical test.

psychiatrist's office

Psychiatric disorders are diagnosed by a psychiatrist or doctor who:
  • examines a person's behaviors, actions, and moods (sometimes the examination only takes a few minutes)

  • compares their observations with a checklist for determining specific psychiatric disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or depression

  • decides on the most appropriate disorder

  • prescribes drugs to "treat" it

To illustrate this idea, let's look at a typical child you might find in a grade school classroom.

Teachers and parents complain that this child:
  • does not pay attention in class

  • moves around a lot in his seat

  • is easily distracted

  • talks too much

  • fails to finish homework and chores
Does it mean that this child is ill?

It actually sounds like this child is simply highly energetic and/or bored with school activities.

Maybe he does not understand the lessons. What do YOU do when you are bored, or do not understand the discussion?

After listening to these "symptoms" and checking them against a series of checklists, a psychiatrist or doctor can label this child with ADHD. This child will probably be prescribed highly dangerous drugs to "treat" the symptoms.

Psychiatrists and doctors make these diagnoses without any blood tests, lab tests, or x-rays to confirm the presence of a physical "disease."

human brain
Chemical imbalance?

Psychiatrists generally claim that psychiatric disorders are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and that drugs will fight or correct that imbalance.

Unlike a medical disease, there is no test to prove this theory.

(This does not stop it from being extremely popular, though. Unfortunately, "popular" does not equal "proven" or "true.")

Psychiatrists use the term "chemical imbalance" to justify treating patients with drugs.


Medical Disease Psychiatric "Disorder"
Includes diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and allergies Includes "disorders" such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression
A condition in which a body part, organ, or system is not functioning normally Undesirable behaviors and emotions blamed on a "chemical imbalance" in the brain
Doctors can use blood tests, x-rays, and lab tests to isolate causes There are no medical tests to determine causes
We can treat the disease by taking care of the causes The cause is not treated

Symptoms are covered up with dangerous drugs

boy reading a computer screen

To read more:

Real Disease vs. Mental Disorder

Was Your Child Labeled with a Mental Disorder? Advice for Parents

Psychostimulants, Facts for Teachers

Alternatives to Psychiatric Drugs

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