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Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

It is not uncommon for people to question what is mentally healthy and what is mentally unhealthy (in other words, What are indicators of a mental illness)?  In this section we discuss mental health vs. mental illness, warning signs of a mental illness, and typical mental illnesses.

What is Mental Health?   

Mental health can mean different things to different people.  For example, self-esteem and the ability to care about others might be one description of mental health.  In addition, mentally healthy people understand that they are not perfect nor can they be all things to all people.  They experience a full range of emotions including sadness, anger, and frustration, as well as joy, love, and satisfaction.  While they typically can handle life's challenges and changes, they can reach out for help if they are having difficulty dealing with major traumas and transitions,  loss of loved ones,  relationship difficulties, school or work problems, and the prospect of retirement.

What is Mental Illness?

The term "mental illness" actually encompasses numerous psychiatric disorders, and just like illnesses that affect other parts of the body they can vary in severity.  Many people suffering from mental illness may not look as though they are ill or that something is wrong, while others may appear to be confused, agitated, or withdrawn.  Mental illnesses are often disorders of the brain that disrupt a person's thinking, feelings, mood, and ability to relate to others.  Mental illness can manifest in a persistent depressed mood, unrelieved anxiety, or an inability to cope with the ordinary demands of life. 

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income.  It is a myth that mental illness is a sign of weakness or defect in character and that sufferers can get better simply by "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps".  Mental illnesses are  (illnesses)  as real as heart disease and cancer  and they require, and respond to, treatment.  As a diabetic may control their diet, make changes in their lifestyle, or take insulin, so a person with mental illness may need to assess their lifestyle, make changes, or take medications.  Counseling and other mental health and community services can provide support and stability, contributing to recovery.  (For more information, refer to www.nami.org/illness).


  • Marked personality change
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Strange ideas or delusions
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged feelings of sadness
  • Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Thinking or talking about suicide
  • Extreme highs or lows
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Excessive anger, hostility
  • Violent behavior
  • Irrational fears

For information regarding other disorders, contact www.nami.org/illness/index.html or www.nimh.nih.gov.