This misunderstanding can be problematic, leading us to sometimes overlook signs that someone needs help. The CDC points out that many individuals with poor mental health have not been formally diagnosed with a mental illness. Also, many people who do have a diagnosed mental illness “can experience periods of physical, mental, and social well-being.”
Moreover, people with psychiatric conditions can change over time, or their issue can be triggered by events and circumstances, both large and small.
A lack of understanding or a mischaracterization of a mental health problem can discourage people from getting needed treatment. Moreover, blurring the lines between health and disease can cause people to misjudge, dismiss, or even stigmatize those who have a mental illness.
Mental Illness Affects More People Than You Think
It is important that we understand what these two terms mean given the prevalence of mental illness throughout the world. The World Health Organization reports that “mental, neurological, and substance use disorders make up 10% of the global burden of disease and 30% of non-fatal disease burden.”
In addition, the WHO points out that some 800,000 individuals die by suicide each year, about 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental disorder, and depression affects about 264 million people worldwide.
But mental illness doesn’t always indicate ongoing illness. Palmer explained, “For example, if someone has the flu, we wouldn’t say they’re currently physically healthy. Instead, we might say that they’re sick. Similarly, people can have a temporary bout of mental illness, like depression after a divorce.”
The parallels are similar for chronic physical and mental illnesses, he explained. “Some people can have mild cases and function fairly normally. Others can be disabled and struggling in their daily lives. Some people may do well day to day, and others might not.”
Health Literacy Is Incredibly Important Yet Uncommon
Despite the global rates of mental illness, many still don’t understand what mental illness or mental health mean. For example, a 2015 study of working-age adults in the United Kingdom found that about 61% of respondents had a poor understanding of mental health conditions, symptoms, and treatments.
This lack of “health literacy,” the study said, could have a negative impact on the ability of those in need to get help and make informed decisions about managing their conditions. Based on studies like this, health experts have led efforts to boost mental health literacy and increase awareness and understanding of mental illness.
“The thing with all mental health disorders is that none of them define the entire person. Although their symptoms might impair their ability to do things others are able to do, they still have areas of strength and competence. Whenever we talk about health versus illness, it’s always important to remember this.”– Dr. Christopher Palmer
Poor mental health literacy also contributes to the problem of mental health stigma. Those who do not understand mental health or mental illness often hold negative and harmful attitudes toward those with psychiatric issues. These attitudes lead to shame, anger, and feelings of worthlessness.
In many cases, social stigma prevents individuals from seeking professional help. “Self-stigma” can affect individuals who have mental health issues but do not fully understand the concepts of mental health and mental illness. They may blame themselves for their conditions. Self-stigma can make conditions worse.
“The thing with all mental health disorders,” Palmer said, “is that none of them define the entire person. Although their symptoms might impair their ability to do things others are able to do, they still have areas of strength and competence. Whenever we talk about health versus illness, it’s always important to remember this.”
Attitudes About Mental Illness and Mental Health
A CBS News poll conducted in the fall of 2019 detailed American attitudes and awareness of mental health issues. Almost 90% of respondents said there is some stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness in our society. More than 30% stated that discrimination and stigma associated with mental illness has decreased over the past ten years. However, about 30% said that the situation remains unchanged.
Most of the poll respondents said they had some understanding of conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Many said that they know someone who had been diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. The poll found that most Americans considered mental illness a serious issue.