Many people use the terms mental health and mental illness interchangeably, but the reality is there are differences between the two. Mental health exists on a spectrum and refers to a person’s overall social and psychological well-being. A mental illness, on the other hand, is a diagnosable mental health disorder. Sometimes, people may have poor mental health because they have a specific mental illness. In other instances, people may be in poor mental health because they are experiencing significant stressors or relationship problems, but they may not have a diagnosable mental health condition. In some cases, people may even use the term “mental illness” in a derogatory fashion, so the terms mental health disorder or mental health condition may be preferred.
What Makes Us Vulnerable to Poor Mental Health?
People can have a mental health condition like depression or anxiety and still be in good mental health, especially if they are seeking treatment and have developed strong coping skills. An untreated mental health condition can make people vulnerable to poor mental health.
Some other factors linked to worsened mental health are:
- Significant stress at work
- Financial problems
- Relationship issues
- Loss of a loved one
- Substance misuse
- Chronic health conditions
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health is a person’s overall state of psychological, emotional and social well-being. This term describes how well people are functioning in these areas and is closely related to physical health. Having poor mental health can have significant effects on the way that people manage stress and interact with others.
You can promote good mental health with these strategies:
- Follow a nutritious diet
- Make time for exercise
- Get enough sleep for restoration
- Avoid smoking, misusing drugs or drinking alcohol in excess
- Set aside time to engage in relaxing activities that you enjoy
- Connect with other people and organizations within your community
- Calm your mind and body with stretching or meditation
What Is Mental Illness, Including Mental Disorders
A mental illness, often called a mental health disorder, is a diagnosable condition included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). These conditions represent a psychological or behavioral pattern that causes a person significant distress or makes it difficult to function in daily life.
Some of the most common mental health disorders include:
- Depression: More than just fluctuations in mood due to daily stress, depression involves symptoms of sadness and loss of interest in daily activities, lasting for at least two weeks. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, low self-worth, fatigue, changes in appetite, sleep disruptions and thoughts of death or suicide.
- Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders are a class of mental health conditions that involve excessive fear and worry that interferes with functioning in daily life. There are several types of anxiety disorders. Some people may live with generalized anxiety disorder, meaning they have excessive worry in general. Others may have social anxiety disorder, which involves excessive worry surrounding social situations.
- Bipolar Disorder: People who live with bipolar disorder experience cycles of mania and depression. During depressive episodes, they experience sadness, low energy and loss of interest in daily activities. During manic episodes, they have increased energy and productivity, and their mood may be either euphoric or irritable. Other symptoms of a manic episode include impulsive behavior, reduced sleep and increased talkativeness.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This mental health disorder develops after a person experiences a traumatic event, such as assault, war or the violent death of a loved one. Symptoms include flashbacks of the event, hypervigilance and attempts to avoid situations that remind them of the event.
- Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder characterized by hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thinking patterns. People who live with this mental health disorder may appear eccentric or out of touch with reality, and they tend to have ongoing difficulty with cognitive functioning.
- Eating Disorders: Eating disorders fall under the umbrella of mental health disorders, involving body image disturbances and preoccupation with food and weight. Individuals with anorexia nervosa restrict food intake and view themselves as being overweight, even when they are dangerously thin. Those with bulimia nervosa engage in episodes of binging, during which they consume excessively large quantities of food, followed by purging behaviors such as overexercising, vomiting or taking laxatives to try to rid the body of calories.
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder: This mental health condition falls under the category of a disruptive behavior disorder. Most people with oppositional defiant disorder develop symptoms during childhood, which include defiant behavior, disregard for the rights of other people and refusal to comply with laws, rules or social norms.
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Individuals who live with ADHD experience difficulty with attention and impulse control, which leads to problems with functioning at school, at work and in personal relationships. They may struggle to sustain attention to tasks, have difficulty sitting still when required and intrude into others’ conversations.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with problems with communication and social interaction, as well as rigid, repetitive behavioral patterns. Since autism falls on a spectrum, some individuals with the condition may experience only mild communication difficulties, whereas others may be non-verbal.
- Personality Disorders: Personality disorders also fall under the umbrella of mental health conditions. People with personality disorders experience distress and difficulty with functioning, as their patterns of thinking and behaving deviate from what is considered typical. There are 10 different personality disorders.
Do I Have a Mental Health Disorder?
If you’re experiencing significant stress and other unpleasant emotions, is it a mental health disorder or simply a period of poor mental health that you can address on your own? You may be able to cope with poor mental health on your own by making changes to your habits. For instance, if you’re overwhelmed or experiencing severe stress, taking time to relax, incorporating physical activity into your routine and turning to friends for support can improve your mental health functioning. On the other hand, if mental health symptoms do not improve and make it difficult for you to fulfill your duties at work or maintain important relationships, it may be time to seek treatment for a mental health disorder.
Some general symptoms that may indicate a mental health condition include:
- Experiencing sadness or irritability that doesn’t seem to improve
- Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
- Experiencing fear, worry or tension
- Having a hard time caring for children and completing your work
- Using alcohol, tobacco or drugs in order to cope with stress
- Experiencing intense mood swings that harm your relationships
- Having thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Hearing voices that aren’t present
What should you do if you think you have a mental health problem?
If you show several of the signs above and haven’t found solutions on your own, it may be time to reach out for help. Contacting a therapist, mental health clinic or treatment center is a good first step. You will schedule an initial appointment and then meet with a mental health professional for an intake meeting. They will review your symptoms, gather information about your personal life and help you to develop a treatment plan.
- What can happen if the mental illness goes untreated? Not seeking treatment for a mental health condition can cause the condition to worsen or persist. Without treatment, it can be difficult to care for your family, be successful at work and enjoy healthy relationships. Untreated mental health conditions can cause significant distress and interfere with daily life.
- Does everyone have a mental illness? Mental disorders are common, but not everyone has a mental health condition. According to the World Health Organization, about one out of every eight people has a mental health disorder.
- How do mental health professionals diagnose disorders? Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose mental health conditions. A professional will talk with you about your symptoms and compare them to the diagnostic criteria in the manual.
- Does long-term stress cause mental illness? There are multiple risk factors that can increase the risk of developing a mental health condition. Stress is one factor among several associated with mental health disorders. Other risk factors include trauma, drug misuse, poverty, genetics, social isolation and history of child abuse.
- How can you tell if someone is mentally ill? It is impossible to tell just by looking at someone that they have a mental health condition. If you are concerned about a loved one’s mental health state, you might look for significant changes in behavior or mood. If a loved one begins isolating from others, showing an irritable or unhappy mood, or expressing fear or worry, and this behavior is not usual for them, they might be struggling with a mental health condition.
MentalHealth.gov. “What Is Mental Health?” February 28, 2022. Accessed September 8, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “About Mental Health.” June 28, 2021. Accessed September 8, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Stress and Coping Resources.” July 20, 2021. Accessed September 8, 2022.
Stein, Dan J., et al. “What is a Mental/Psychiatric Disorder? From DSM-IV to DSM-V.” Psychological Medicine, November 2010. Accessed September 9, 2022.
World Health Organization. “Mental Disorders.” June 8, 2022. Accessed September 9, 2022.
American Psychiatric Association. “What Are Personality Disorders?” November 2018. Accessed September 9, 2022. Arango, Celso, et al. “Preventive strategies for mental health.” The Lancet Psychiatry, July 2018. Accessed September 9, 2022.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.