A notebook displaying the words Mental Illness vs. Mental Disorder.

Mental Illness vs. Mental Disorder – Know How to Talk About Mental Health

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issues, it’s important to know how to talk about them. For those outside of the medical field, using the terms mental illness vs. mental disorder can cause some confusion. Let’s break it down.

The Difference Between Mental Disorders and Mental Illness

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), mental illness and mental disorder are interchangeable terms used among mental health professionals. Psychiatric disorder may also be used in place of either.

“Disorder” is commonly used across the medical field. For example, “mental disorder” is used in the title of the book used to diagnose mental health conditions: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This book contains the descriptions and symptoms of all diagnosable mental illnesses and is updated regularly.

However, some people may prefer the term mental illness. Some feel that the term “illness” expresses the idea that they have a medical condition that affects their daily life and well-being.

Those who suffer from mental health issues may find one term less stigmatizing than the other and prefer to use it. Be supportive of the language that people use to refer to themselves. This simple act alone can help them build self-esteem and feel in control of their identity and recovery.

Types of Mental Illnesses

There is a wide range of mental health disorders that people experience. These are classified by psychiatry professionals based on their similarities in causes or symptoms. Here are the major groups of mental health conditions.

Note: This information is not intended to diagnose any mental illness or suggest treatment. Only licensed mental health care providers can accurately diagnose disorders. 

Neurodevelopmental Disorders

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), neurodevelopmental disorders start manifesting during the developmental period of life and cause complications in how we grow and learn. This negative effect on mental development could mean that an individual has a harder time developing intellectually or socially. They may also struggle with motor functions or acquiring language.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are part of this group of mental health conditions.

Personality Disorders

These kinds of mental health disorders are characterized by long-term patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that cause impairments in their relationships with others.

Borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder are part of this group. Personality disorders are often heavily stigmatized, but symptoms can improve with psychotherapy.

Eating Disorders

When people hear the term “eating disorder,” they typically think of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, but binge eating can also fall into this category. Extreme patterns of purging, overly restrictive dieting, or excessive eating can be dangerous to your body and mind. These symptoms are a sign of a mental health condition and can be treated with talk therapy.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders cause mental health problems for many people – they’re one of the most common kinds of mental health conditions. They’re characterized by disruptions in your emotional state, including extremely high and low moods. Other symptoms of mood disorders can include self-harm and increased irritability.

Major depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and bipolar disorder are a part of this category.

Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorders are severe mental illnesses that cause periods of psychosis. These disorders affect our perceptions of reality and often involve delusions and severe paranoia.

Schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and delusional disorder are all psychotic disorders. Some people may suffer a brief psychotic episode due to a traumatic event like a death in the family or a violent experience.

Trauma Disorders

Trauma disorders develop after witnessing or experiencing a highly stressful event. Those who suffer from trauma disorders have a hard time recovering after the event and may experience flashbacks, nightmares, or panic attacks in response to emotional triggers.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the most well-known trauma disorder, but acute stress disorder (ASD) and disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) are also trauma disorders. You can also experience secondhand trauma, which is common among professionals who are often exposed to other people’s first-hand traumas as a part of their job, such as social workers, first responders, doctors, nurses, and counselors.

Anxiety Disorders

While anxiety can be a normal reaction to stressful situations, those who suffer from an anxiety disorder feel an excessive amount of fear or worry and sometimes experience it without cause. If you or a family member avoid specific situations due to excessive worry or stress, an anxiety disorder may be the cause.

Generalized anxiety is a common diagnosis for this type of mental health problem. Panic disorder, agoraphobia, and other specific phobias also are classified as anxiety disorders, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorder (SUD) causes those who suffer from it to continue using substances habitually despite harmful consequences. This use can even cause distortions in behavior or ways of thinking, resulting in structural changes to the brain. Repeated substance abuse can cause major complications in someone’s personal or professional life, leading to SUD.

While often stigmatized, substance use disorder is more common than many think, with about 23 million American adults suffering from it.

Dissociative Disorders

When someone suffers from a dissociative disorder, they lose touch with their own thoughts, feelings, memories, and identity. These may develop due to stress or trauma and be co-occurring with a trauma disorder. People suffering from dissociative disorder may think that the people around them or their surroundings seem distorted or unreal and experience periods of amnesia.

Depersonalization/derealization disorder, dissociative amnesia, and dissociative identity disorders are all a part of this classification.

When to Seek Mental Health Treatment

It‘s natural to feel stressed or down in the dumps every once in a while – but if those periods are ongoing and cause a disruption to your life, physical health, or emotional wellness, it’s time to seek help from professional mental health caregivers. Typically, experiencing patterns of negative thinking for over two weeks is a sign that it is time to seek out mental health services.

Find Hope for a Better Tomorrow at Meridian HealthCare

Struggling with mental health issues alone often only makes them worse. While the distinction between terms may seem unimportant to those who don’t struggle with the stigma of mental illness, using the proper term can mean the world to those who do.

That’s the most important distinction between mental illness vs. mental disorder: how those who struggle with mental health issues feel about the terms and which term they choose to use. At Meridian HealthCare, we respect how our patients view themselves and speak about themselves. We believe that everyone has a right to feel seen and supported – and that feeling that way is important to recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with a mental health issue, reach out today, and we’ll help you find a better tomorrow.