What mental disorder means is controversial. I attempt to solve that controversy by applying the method of defining a phenomenon in terms of the goals we have for demarcating that phenomenon from other phenomena to the case of mental disorder. I thus address the question about the nature of mental disorder by paying attention to the goals we have for demarcating mental disorder. I maintain that these goals, which embody the reasons why we consider mental disorder a significant phenomenon for us, have a common denominator: they refer to psychological capacity for autonomy. I present a conceptual foundation for defining mental disorder on the basis of that psychological capacity and argue that this way of understanding the nature of mental disorder avoids the main problems of the central contemporary theories of mental disorder. Then I explain why this conception of the nature of mental disorder is not undermined by anti-psychiatric criticisms to the effect that mental illness does not exist, that the mentally ill should not be treated differently from others, and that seeing problems of the mentally disordered as psychiatric problems is unjustified medicalization. I conclude by suggesting that the presented conceptual foundation for defining mental disorder would benefit from being complemented by results of empirical psychology.
Keywords mental illness  mental disorder
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DOI S1086330309100041
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