People use different descriptive terms for mental illness, including mental health problems, mental health disorders and psychiatric disorders. Generally, mental health problems encompass all aspects of mental health difficulties, including those that do not meet the criteria for a specific mental illness diagnosis. Some of these difficulties might be described as mental or emotional distress.

At some point in their life, everyone is likely to experience mental distress over life’s ups and downs. A lost job, a failed relationship, a really bad day full of mishaps – the stresses and disappointments of everyday life are things everyone faces. Generally, we can cope with the resulting distress by working it out ourselves or sharing the experience with a friend, a family member or even a counsellor.

Being distressed, anxious, sad or stressed does not necessarily mean you have a mental illness. Mental illnesses and mental disorders have medical definitions and are diagnosed by a doctor using strict clinical criteria, outlined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 2013, referred to as DSM-5). DSM-5 offers a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders.

Like physical diseases, there are many different types and classifications of mental illnesses affecting mood, thinking and emotions. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. The following are some of the defining characteristics of a mental illness:

  • It is a recognized, medically diagnosable illness.
  • It can cause significant cognitive, affective (emotional) or relational impairment.
  • It results from biological, developmental, or psychosocial factors, or a combination.
  • It can be managed using physical disease approaches (prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation).

Stigma and mental illness

Experiencing stigma is a reality for many people with a mental illness, and they report that how others judge them is one of their greatest barriers to a complete and satisfying life. The Mental Health Commission of Canada reports that 60% of people with a mental health problem or illness won’t seek help for fear of being labelled mentally ill. The Commission also says that “people living with mental health disorders often say the stigma they encounter is worse than the illness itself.”

Sometimes people with a mental disorder can take the feelings generated by the stigma and discrimination to heart, resulting in lowered self-esteem, self-stigma (believing the negative things people say about them), guilt and shame. As a result, people do not seek the help they need.

Learning more about mental health and mental illness is a crucial step in dispelling stigma, stopping prejudice and promoting early identification and effective treatment of mental conditions.

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Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario