According to the Random House Dictionary, the basic definition of "delusion" is "false belief or opinion." While most of us have held a belief that was later proven incorrect at least a few times in our lives, how can we distinguish between an occasional inaccurate idea and a delusional disorder that needs psychiatric treatment?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, utilized by psychiatrists to categorize mental illnesses by symptoms, defines delusion as the following: "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture. " (This last portion is important because it excludes commonly held cultural or religious beliefs from this diagnosis.)
Many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and others, may include delusions among their symptoms. Also, a range of physical conditions may cause delusional thoughts, ranging from diseases like Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's to illnesses such as brain tumors, and even chemical imbalances of electrolytes, hormones or vitamins (to name just a few).
Those who suffer from delusions without the symptoms of other mental illnesses are said to have a delusional disorder. This is a relatively rare condition. If one or more family members have been diagnosed with a mental illness, genetic predisposition to this or other mental illnesses is a possibility. Women are more likely to be affected than men; however, men are more likely to act upon their delusions.
Many who are afflicted with this illness are fully functional and able to socialize normally. This may inhibit diagnosis and treatment for years. There are several different types of this disorder, including erotomanic, jealous, grandiose, somatic and persecutory delusions.
If an individual should erroneously be convinced that someone is in love with them, this is called an erotomanic delusion. This becomes problematic if the sufferer attempts to contact their perceived lover repeatedly or even stalks them. Alternately, when an individual is convinced that a spouse or partner is unfaithful without a factual basis, they suffer from a jealous delusion.
Those afflicted with grandiose delusions believe they are more talented, accomplished or important than what they really are. The somatic type is typified by an individual's belief that they suffer from physical defects or illnesses that they do not actually have. Eating disorders such as anorexia are one manifestation of this problem.
Finally, persecutory delusions are exhibited by those who think they (or their loved ones) are in constant danger or under surveillance. Some people exhibit multiple types, leading to a diagnosis of mixed delusional disorder. Regardless of the type, those afflicted may experience auditory or even visual hallucinations.
If you suspect that you (or a loved one) are suffering from any of the problems described, the first step is to see a physician or qualified mental health professional. A thorough physical exam, family history and necessary testing can determine if the delusions are the result of a physical condition. Health care providers must also evaluate persons suffering from this illness to determine if there is a potential for violence to themselves or to others.
Individuals referred to psychiatric help may be prescribed medications to help moderate the imbalances causing the illness, as well as being instructed in new methods of thinking to help them determine the difference between reality and their delusions.
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