The definition of a mental disorder is a “dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.” Unfortunately, this definition is vague and leaves much room for debate and criticism. Since it is not entirely clear what “dysfunction” means, the nature of mental disorders is usually open to interpretation. This is especially problematic for young people who don’t have medical autonomy, because they can be controlled by the interpretations and decisions of their parents. Unlike adults, who have an unspoken amount of control and respect when they visit a doctor with symptoms, youth are in an inherent position of inferiority because of their age. This can lead to doctors misdiagnosing symptoms “as typical adolescent mood swings” when they are indicative of something much more serious, like depression or anxiety. This discrimination may occur because the person is young, or because parents ignore important symptoms — potentially out of fear, ignorance, or disbelief. Problems with diagnosis can go both ways, however other types of mental disorders like ADHD are thought to be overdiagnosed in youth. Both misdiagnosis and underdiagnosis have one thing in common though; they can be traced to discrimination towards young people who are not always given the freedom or respect to make decisions for themselves.
Young people who come into conflict with their parents, their schools, or the law are often diagnosed with mental disorders. While these diagnoses can be helpful to struggling youth, there is also potential for overdiagnosis. Psychiatry has diagnosed several mental disorders that only apply to young people who are in conflict with adults or institutions (like schools), such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). At the same time, psychiatry has diagnosed few or no specialized mental disorders that apply the other way around: to adults who are in conflict with young people. This indicates a trend of pathologizing certain adolescent behaviors.