The importance and limits of harm in identifiying mental disorder

Jerome C. Wakefield, Michael B. First

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The In Review articles in this issue on normality and disorder by Dr Rachel Cooper and Dr Derek Bolton explore the importance of a value component of harm in the concept of mental disorder. They focus on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder's clinical significance criterion, requiring that symptoms cause significant distress or role impairment, as the expression of the harm component. As Dr Bolton argues, harm in the form of distress or role impairment has always been intimately tied to the concept of disorder and treatment decisions; as Dr Cooper argues, without the harm requirement, any disliked anomaly may be labelled a disorder. Moreover, as Cooper argues, a harm requirement is not incompatible with a natural kinds approach to distinguishing among disorders or to a categorical approach to disorder; the lack of zones of rarity on the harm continuum does not preclude categorical underlying causal processes. However, neither paper systematically develops arguments regarding the other component of disorder, the requirement that the harm must be caused by underlying dysfunction. The dysfunction component distinguishes disorders from the many other negative conditions in life. Cooper's identification of dysfunction with symptom severity ignores the fact that normal suffering can be severe, and Bolton's attempt to encompass risk of harm within harm yields an implausibly expansive conception of disorder. While the harm component is essential, clarifcation of the dysfunction component of the concept of disorder, pursued in part 2 of this In Review in the December 2013 issue, is also essential to establishing a coherent and plausibly limited domain of psychiatric disorder within the broader arena of harmful conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)618-621
Number of pages4
JournalCanadian Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Clinical significance
  • DSM-5
  • Diagnosis
  • Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders-fifth edition
  • Dysfunction
  • False positives
  • Harmful dysfunction
  • Mental disorder definition
  • Validity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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