What’s the difference between mental health and mental illness? Sometimes the answer is clear, but often the distinction between mental health and mental illness isn’t so obvious. For example, if you’re afraid of giving a speech in public, does it mean you have a mental health condition or a run-of-the-mill case of nerves? Or, when does shyness become a case of social phobia?
Each mental health condition has its own signs and symptoms. In general, however, professional help might be needed if you experience:
- Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
- An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
- Strange or grandiose ideas
- Excessive anxiety
- Prolonged depression or apathy
- Thinking or talking about suicide
- Substance abuse
- Extreme mood swings or excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior
Why is it so tough to tell what’s normal?
It’s often difficult to distinguish normal mental health from mental illness because there’s no easy test to show if something’s wrong. Also, primary mental health conditions can be mimicked by physical disorders.
Mental health conditions aren’t due to a physical disorder and are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms, as well as on how much the condition affects your daily life. For example, a mental health condition can affect your:
- Behavior. Obsessive hand-washing or drinking too much alcohol might be a sign of a mental health condition.
- Feelings. Sometimes a mental health condition is characterized by a deep or ongoing sadness, euphoria or anger.
- Thinking. Delusions — fixed beliefs that aren’t changeable in light of conflicting evidence — or thoughts of suicide might be symptoms of a mental health condition.
Many people who have mental health conditions consider their signs and symptoms a normal part of life, or they avoid treatment out of shame or fear of judgment from others. Others’ judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding. Learning to accept your condition and recognize what you need to do to treat it, seeking support, and helping educate others can make a big difference.