Mental Health, Mental Illness and What They Mean

What is mental health?

When we refer to mental health, we are talking about one’s psychological, emotional and social wellbeing. Throughout our lives, our mental health plays a role in how we think, feel and act. It influences how we handle life, relate to others and make choices. 

Mental health includes the capacity to:

  • Think rationally and logically
  • Cope with transitions, loss, stress and trauma
  • Be aware of and accept limitations and boundaries.

A mentally healthy person is able to choose among thoughts, shift flexibly between them, and match mood and emotional expression to the present situation. Mental health does not imply an absence of distress or suffering, nor does it imply strict social conformity.

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disruptions in how people think, feel and behave. Like other organs in our bodies, our brain is vulnerable to disease and disorders. And, just like other diseases, such as diabetes or pneumonia, mental illnesses can have physical as well as psychological symptoms. The good news is that with appropriate care and treatment, many people with mental disorders can get better, resume normal activities, and learn to cope with or recover from a mental illness.

There are more than 200 defined types of mental illness (psychiatric illnesses) classified in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Published in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-5 is used by mental health practitioners for diagnosis of mental disorders.

Mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addictions and borderline personality disorder.Most mental illnesses are experienced on a spectrum of severity: At one end are well-adjusted, successful individuals whose disorders are invisible to others. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who are too severely impaired to lead normal lives – the extreme that most people think of when they hear “mentally Ill. 

Causes of mental disorders

Although doctors and researchers continue to extend knowledge of the brain, many of its functions remain a puzzle. The underlying causes of mental illnesses are considered to be biopsychosocial – that is, varying parts biological, psychological and social. These components span:

  • Biological issues, such as genes, physical illness, injury or brain chemistry.
  • Developmental experiences, including adverse childhood experiences (e.g. trauma, abuse).
  • Social issues, such as poverty, unemployment, job stress, or loss through death or divorce.

Research points to mental health problems as a reaction to excessive stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or the interplay of all three. They are not caused by character flaws, laziness or personal weakness. Many people need professional help, such as treatment with therapy and/or medication, to improve.

What are common symptoms of psychiatric illnesses?

Common psychiatric symptoms include excessive anxiety; a depressed mood or a mood that fluctuates excessively; disturbing thoughts; behaviors that are harmful or disturbing to one’s self or to others; memory problems; sleep difficulties; and seeing or hearing things that are not perceived by others. Other signs may include changes in personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal; extreme sadness; or irritability.

Nearly 28 percent of Americans will meet criteria for a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime. Some of these disorders will be mild and not interfere with social or occupational functioning, nor necessarily cause personal distress. For example, someone with a specific phobia, such as a fear of dogs or of riding in elevators, may be able to manage life without difficulty. However, most disorders will cause distress, and/or occupational or social dysfunction. About 18 percent of Americans have a mental disorder that does cause such distress. Unfortunately, many in this category do not seek help for their condition.

When should someone seek help?

As with most medical problems, early treatment leads to better results. Sometimes people don’t seek treatment because they aren’t aware that help is possible; they may feel embarrassed or ashamed; or they may not know that their thinking or behavior is a problem.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that may indicate a psychiatric disorder, a consultation with a mental health professional or your primary care physician should be helpful.

Treatment works and improves quality of life

Treatments for mental illnesses today are usually effective. Individually tailored treatment plans that combine effective medication, psychosocial treatments and other supports cansubstantially improve quality of life and reduce symptoms for 70 to 90 percent of individuals. With appropriate care, most people with mental disorders can lead fulfilling, independent lives and manage the effects of their illness.

How common are mental disorders and illness?

Mental illnesses can affect anyone regardless of age, race, religion, origins or economic status. In 2013, an estimated 43.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had some form of mental illness in the past year. This accounts for nearly one in five U.S. adults – 18.5 percent of all adults. There were an estimated 10 million adults aged 18 or older with serious mental illness in the past year – 4.2 percent of all U.S. adults. In 2013, 34.6 million adults (14.6 percent of the population aged 18 or older) received mental health care during the past 12 months.

Unfortunately, mental illness usually strikes individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. We know that 50 percent of people who develop a psychiatric illness have symptoms of a disorder before age 14, and that 75 percent will have symptoms by age 25. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.

Find mental help in North Texas



Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)


Helpful links:

Fast facts on prevalence and treatment of mental illnesses