A person interested in a degree or career in counseling, psychology or psychiatry may wonder, “How do personality disorders differ from mental illnesses?” There are several key differences between these two types of mental health conditions that professionals and family members of affected people should know. Understanding these differences could help a person with their area of focus for their degree or career.
Personality Disorders Are Long-term and Stable
Personality disorders are long-term conditions. They are typically stable for the person’s entire lifetime. Symptoms might wax and wane slightly. For example, a person who is under a lot of stress at work or who develops a serious physical illness and who also has dependent personality disorder may find that they become more dependent on their chosen person during the more stressful time in their life. Mental illnesses tend to get worse over a person’s lifetime.
Extremes of What Is Normal
Personality disorders are extreme variations on what is normal. Another way to describe this is to consider a normal distribution bell curve. The right and left tails of the curve represent two to three standard deviations away from the average. Those points are still part of the normal distribution, but they are at the extreme ends of it. Personality disorders are like those extremes on the normal distribution. They are still within normal limits, but they are pretty far off from what is average. This is why others perceive a person with a personality disorder as difficult to communicate with, engage or understand. Mental illnesses are not normal.
Not a Morbid or Biological Process
A personality disorder is not a morbidity. That is to say, it is not an illness. It is a pattern of abnormal thoughts or emotions in reaction to experiences. Personality disorders are not caused by a biological process. Researchers published a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry noting that a person with a personality disorder is at a higher risk of addiction or substance abuse, and they are also at a higher risk of developing a mental illness at some point in their lifetime.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are no medications used specifically for personality disorders. This is different from mental illnesses, for which there are many classes of drugs for treatment. It is important to note that a person can have both a personality disorder and a mental illness. Some people have two or more personality disorders, mental illnesses or a combination of these. When a person has both a personality disorder and a mental illness, their risk of suicide is higher. In such cases, treatment with medications and therapy may offer stabilization and reduction of symptoms. The only type of personality disorder that responds effectively to therapy is borderline personality disorder.
Knowledge of the differences between personality disorders and mental illnesses is essential for a counselor who wants to provide optimal care to their patients. This information is also useful to other healthcare providers as well as family members and friends of people who have one of these conditions. Knowing the answer to, “How do personality disorders differ from mental illnesses?” is a good first step in preparing for a career in counseling people with these mental health conditions.