Opinion | Mental health and mental illness are not interchangeable terms

By Dalia Maeroff, Senior Staff Columnist

Something I have noticed a lot lately is that people use the words “mental health” to describe mental illness and developmental disorders. I sat in class last week and listened to people talk about an essay concerning mental illness, and many students in the discussion used the words “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably like they were the same thing. 

As someone who studies psychology and linguistics, nothing angers me more than people who do not use specific language when talking about mental disorders. Society has become much more aware of specificity in language when talking about minority or marginalized groups of people in recent years, which begs the question of why we haven’t updated our lexicon for people with mental illness and developmental disorders in the same manner. 

The reason is simple — stigma. Everybody has mental health, so mental health isn’t stigmatized. What are stigmatized are mental illness and developmental disorders. Using “mental health” to talk about mental illness and developmental disorders further stigmatizes them and diminishes the struggles of people with mental illnesses and developmental disorders. 

Mental health is something that you need to keep up just like physical health. You keep up physical health by eating healthily, exercising and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. You can improve your mental health by taking a walk outside, spending time with friends or doing something that you love. Everybody needs a break sometimes and that’s okay. Mental illness — and developmental disorders — are not that simple.

The words “mental illness” refer to mental disorders that are usually diagnosed in adulthood and can include mood, personality and psychotic disorders, among others. Some of these disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, OCD and schizophrenia. Mental illness cannot be cured by a walk in the park or a self-care day. These mental illnesses are just that — illnesses of the brain. They usually require therapy and medication to get better, just as an injury requires medication and physical therapy to get better. Even with therapy and medication, they may not be cured. These disorders impact day-to-day functioning for people socially, physically and emotionally. Needing to take a day to relax for your mental health is not the same as not being able to move from your bed all day because of a mental illness. 

How we speak about mental illness greatly impacts on stigma. Psychologists usually recommend using what is called “people-first” language, meaning that you should refer to someone as a “person with bipolar disorder” rather than a “bipolar person.” Throughout history and today, people with mental illness have been dehumanized due to their conditions — people-first language emphasizes the fact that people are people, separate from their mental illness. Oftentimes, people may be hesitant to say “mental illness” out of fear of being insensitive. It is more problematic to use “mental health” instead of outright referring to people with mental illnesses while using people-first language.

It is estimated that as many as 10.9% of adults ages 18 to 25 in the United States suffer from depression. General anxiety disorder affects 19.1% of the United States population and is often comorbid with depression. 2.8% of adults have bipolar disorder in the United States. About 1.2% of adults in the United States have OCD, and the same number have schizophrenia. That is a lot of people and a lot of symptoms to be pushing under the umbrella of “mental health.” People with mental illness all have mental health too, but it is not the same as the mental illnesses they struggle with, and maintaining mental health can be much harder with a mental illness. 

Talking about mental illness as “mental health” demeans the everyday struggles of people with these disorders. It equates being sad to depression, nervousness with anxiety, moody to bipolar disorder and hyper to ADHD. Everyday feelings and emotions are not the same as having a mental illness and insinuating that they only increase stigma when someone actually has a mental illness that cannot be fixed by a bath bomb, a cup of tea or a face mask. 

Recently I’ve seen people talk about developmental disorders like ADHD and autism using the words “mental health” as well. They are not the same thing. Developmental disorders, also known as neurodevelopmental disorders, are disorders that are usually diagnosed in children. These disorders are often characterized as disabilities and include autism, ADHD/ADD, learning disabilities and others. When people talk about these disorders, many use the phrases “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent” to distinguish between people who do not have developmental disorders and people who are neurologically “divergent.” Many people with developmental disorders also prefer to use people-first language except for a large majority of the autistic population, who believe that autism is too large a part of their identity to separate it from themselves. 

Of children ages 3 to 17, 17% were diagnosed with developmental disorders between 2009 and 2017. Developmental disorders are not mental health. Not being able to focus, hyperactivity and executive dysfunction are not aspects of mental health, they are symptoms of a developmental disorder. 

When we separate the symptoms of a developmental disorder from the everyday behaviors of neurotypical people, disorders can be diagnosed faster and easier. When the inability to focus or difficulty learning falls under the guise of “mental health,” it makes it something that everyone can experience, even though it isn’t. This makes it harder, especially for children with developmental disorders to get diagnosed and receive the help they need quickly. 

Dalia Maeroff writes primarily about issues of psychology, education, culture and environmentalism. Write to her at [email protected].

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