Is Suffering a Symptom of Mental Illness?

In America, the polarization of opinions is incredible. Many Americans, for example, have enormous respect for President Trump, while many others have the polar opposite opinion.

There is something similar to this when it comes to how Americans feel about psychiatrists. There are many people who hold the belief that psychiatrists are enormously helpful to our society by relieving suffering while others believe that psychiatrists have sold out to the pharmaceutical industry, consequently leading to enormous harm.

We get to see and hear favorable positions for the psychiatric point of view from the numerous ads on TV, radio, and print media sponsored by the fabulously wealthy pharmaceutical industry, which has the biggest lobbyist group in Washington, DC (see HERE). This information is presented frequently to people whether or not they wish to be exposed to it unless they choose to live in a cave.

The resources available for presenting the alternative view is relatively minuscule and is not likely to be heard unless citizens actively seek it out. Nevertheless, those who are interested find arguments such as these: Psychiatrists have become addicted to the enormous financial benefits of transforming human suffering into a language of mental illness and then convincing people that they need to spend the rest of their life on psychiatric drugs. The consequences to society of this mental illness/drug approach is an enormous increase in people becoming disabled due to the negative drug effects. There is also some recent research suggesting that when women on these drugs become pregnant, there is an increased risk of miscarriages, and if the infant is brought into this world alive, she or he is at an increased risk of serious health consequences.

In my opinion, one of the best places to obtain the arguments about the harmful approach of psychiatric drugs is at the “Mad In America” site that readers can access HERE. It does a great job of defending its position with sound scientific research.

An essential part of the mental illness/psychiatric drug approach involves convincing people that the suffering they experience is a symptom of mental illness. But does that really make sense?

Suffering and Mental Illness

The latest version of what is viewed by psychiatrists as the most authoritative American text on mental illness is the DSM-5. It tells us that mental disorders “are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities (APA, 2013, p. 20).” There is some additional vague wording here about also having a “dysfunction.” Although my focus here is on the suffering component of the definition, I will say a few words about the functioning part of the definition shortly.

Internationally, the most authoritative text according to psychiatrists is the International Classification of Diseases (ICD, WHO, 1992). It tells us that mental disorder “is not an exact term, but it is used here to imply the existence of a clinically recognizable set of symptoms or behaviour associated in most cases with distress and with interference with personal functions” (p. 11).

Notice that the phrase “significant distress” appears in both definitions. This is the “suffering” component of the definition. Also notice that although this suffering component of the definition is “usually” associated with mental disorder, it is not really a requirement.

In case this vague definition does not provide enough wiggle room for clinicians to label all people seeking their services as having a mental disorder and to prescribe a drug for it, the ICD tells the clinician, “When the requirements are only partially fulfilled, it is nevertheless useful to record a diagnosis for most purposes” (p. 8). This type of double talk is one of the reasons why many people view the mental illness construct as too vague for scientific purposes.

Now, let’s go back to the “level of functioning” part of the description in a definition of mental disorders. That part is actually very useful. It is for this reason that I have written a whole post on this topic titled, “Mental Illness or Below Average Functioning.” In brief, if someone is concerned about their level of functioning, we would be much better off saying that, rather than converting this very clear description into pathological mumbo jumbo. By leaving out the psychiatric jargon, we have a clearer understanding of what the person seeking services wants addressed. And it is my contention in the post I wrote on this topic that it would lead to a more reliable and valid bases for scientific research. In my view, the only point in converting a concern about a person’s level of functioning into a language of mental disorders is to support a sales pitch aimed at selling drugs.

Isn’t Suffering Just a Natural Part of Life?

Now, lets get back to the “suffering” component of the mental disorder definition. According to Buddhist philosophy, the first Noble Truth is that to live is to suffer. According to Christian philosophers that I have read, suffering is something to make us think. It is a tool to get our attention and to accomplish the Lord’s purposes in our lives in a way that would never occur without the trial or irritation. In Judaism, the Talmud teaches us that the righteous suffer in this world in order to increase their reward in the Eternal World. Rabbi Eliezer, in the Talmud, welcomed his suffering, calling his pains ”my friends.”

If we look outside the religious teachings, we find that giving birth is accompanied by suffering, and yet it makes more sense to classify this experience as a natural part of creating new life rather than a pathological condition. When writers receive rejections from publishers, or a loved one dies, suffering often accompanies these experiences.

Psychiatrists classify people as having a mental disorder even if no unusual level of suffering is present (e.g., attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder, mental retardation, schizophrenia, narcissistic personality disorder, etc.). Add to all of this the problems one encounters when one tries to decide objectively how much suffering, beyond the “normal” amount that one experiences during life’s parade of disappointments, is required to ascribe a diagnosis. In the end, can we really determine if one’s “suffering” is really a symptom of a disorder, or just life being life.

In my view, the quick diagnosis and drug prescription approach that has become the finically rewarding approach by modern psychiatry is a serious mistake. In saying this, I am not seeking to encourage people to be disrespectful to people who choose to take psychiatric drugs. It is their life, and it is their right to make the best decision they know how to make, and I wish them well. At the same time, I believe suffering may best be served by exploring what it could potentially provide. In my own life, I have seen numerous examples of people growing from their suffering. And one of the hardest lessons I had to learn, when seeking to be of help, is that there are times when it is best to address another’s suffering not by trying to fix it, but to stand respectfully beside the person’s misery and sharing what they are going through.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Is Depression a Genetic Disease?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. “Change brings pain. Pain brings wisdom. Wisdom make life bearable.”

    From the play “Tea-house of the August Moon”, about 1950

    • Hi David Harold Chester,
      Your quote is beautiful music to my ears. Much appreciated!

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