A person who is considering earning a degree in psychology, psychiatry or another specialty area of medicine or counseling may wonder, “How is a personality disorder different from a mental illness?” A personality disorder differs from a mental illness in several ways. Understanding these differences is also helpful to anyone who has a friend, family member or other loved one with one of these conditions.
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Personality Disorders Are Consistent Over Time
A major difference between a personality disorder and a mental illness is that a personality disorder is generally consistent over time. Mental illness typically worsens over time. The personality disorder is a different way of thinking, feeling or interacting with others in comparison to what people expect out of a person. Societal expectations can change over time. With mental illness, there is a significant impairment of functioning. A person with a personality disorder can function independently.
Age of Onset
A person with mental illness typically shows symptoms during childhood, and the symptom severity increases through the teen and adult years. A personality disorder does not usually develop until a person is in their late teens or 20s. The personality disorder is typically not diagnosed until at least the age of 18. This is because a person’s personality is still developing during the young adult stage of life. Some people may develop a personality disorder later in life, such as in their 50s or 60s. The level of severity does not typically get worse, no matter when a person develops a personality disorder. Mental illness symptoms worsen throughout a person’s life.
Types of Treatment for Personality Disorders
Personality disorders are usually treated with psychotherapy, explains the American Psychiatric Association. Psychotherapy involves counseling or therapy with different approaches. A popular approach is cognitive therapy, which is also called cognitive-behavioral therapy. The psychologist helps the individual understand how their thoughts and behaviors affect others. The person can work through issues and develop different habits or retrain their thoughts. Treatment for mental illness typically involves both medication and psychotherapy. A person with severe mental illness may require hospitalization. In some cases, involuntary hospitalization may be needed for a person with severe mental illness who is not willing or able to seek voluntary treatment or for whom outpatient treatment is insufficient.
Impact on a Person’s Life
A personality disorder often makes it difficult for a person to relate to other people. They might have a hard time developing and maintaining meaningful relationships or friendships. Personality disorders can also make for difficult relationships between parents and children or between siblings. The way that a person thinks about themselves can also impair their functioning. A person with a personality disorder is usually able to hold a job, care for themselves, take care of their home and perform everyday activities, such as going grocery shopping or using a public transit system. With a severe or untreated mental illness, a person often becomes unable to care for themselves, maintain a dwelling or perform routine activities.
Understanding the differences between a personality disorder and a mental illness is important for anyone planning to enter a career in medicine, social work, psychology, counseling, education, and other similar services. It is also essential to a person who wants to provide direct care to people with a personality disorder or mental illness.