Words have power. We know this, right? Usually when we think about the capacity of language, we consider the deeper, long-term, overarching consequences — good or bad — of what we say. A worthwhile endeavor, no doubt. But just like those last over-the-top, flowery couple of sentences, we may miss out on the practical implications of our words if we keep the conversation in the clouds.

Here’s what I mean: The words we use inform both our perception of the world and how we respond to it. Words influence our mind and words influence our actions.

When it comes to talking about mental health and mental illness, using the right words can help us think better and act more productively — a win for ourselves as individuals and for society at large.

How Should We Define Mental Health?

Pile of white lettersThe American Psychiatric Association refers to mental health as the “foundation for emotions, thinking, communication, learning, resilience and self-esteem.”1 I love the use of word “foundation” because it reminds us that strong mental health is vital for anyone and everyone hoping to make it in our world.

Working toward better mental health simply means you are living in what happiness researcher, Gretchen Rubin, calls an atmosphere of growth.2 As she explains, “To feel happy, it’s not enough to have fun with your friends, and not feel guilty about yelling all the time, and feel like you’re working in the right job; you also need to feel growth — a sense of learning, of betterment, of advancement, of contributing to the growth of others.”2

Growth in your relationships, at school, at home or at work is what mental health is all about. Growth in some areas may come easy. And when it doesn’t, especially when a mental health issue begins to interfere with daily life, you can ask for help.1

What Constitutes Mental Illness?

In contrast to mental health, which is a more general term, the phrase “mental illness” should be reserved for diagnosable health conditions.1

The key difference, then, between a mental health issue and a mental illness is that a mental illness operates on the same level as any other medical condition. By this, we mean that individuals with a mental illness such as depression, anxiety or phobia benefit greatly from professional intervention.

With treatment, most people who have a mental illness lead normal, productive lives — an important note to remember as nearly 20 percent of American adults have a mental illness.1 Treatment is key.

What About Mental and Behavioral Health Disorders?

Behavior disorders require choice. Mental disorders are completely involuntary.3According to an article in Healthy Place, mental health disorders include “Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder.”3
Keep in mind, of course, that while behavior disorders such as substance abuse or anorexia may begin with a choice, the disease will eventually take control and make it extremely difficult for a person choose a different path.

Why Do These Distinctions Matter?

We’ve established that words aren’t just words. Words are powerful and they matter. Why do they matter in this discussion? Two reasons: reducing stigma and pursuing adequate help.

First, let’s talk stigma.

Consider what happens when we carelessly toss around these terms:

A classmate or coworker who annoys you, who perhaps even struggles with social interaction, may not actually have a mental illness. Perhaps he just needs a little guidance in workplace etiquette and relationship building.

But if you joke with someone else that he has a mental illness, you undermine both his needs and the needs of those around who might actually struggle with mental illness. Instead, we can words to reduce stigma by kindly correcting incorrect information when we hear it — even if it comes from a good place.

“Stigma is based on ignorance.”

– Laura Barton

As Laura Barton, an author who lives with mental illness, explains, “Stigma is based on ignorance. That doesn’t mean the person is trying to be cruel; sometimes the most well-intentioned words are the most hurtful. They’ve got bad information that isn’t a reflection of who we are and our reality. If you’re up for it, try to correct it.”4

Now let’s look at how the right term points us in the right direction.

When we assume that mental health issues, mental illnesses and behavior disorders are basically the same, we do ourselves and others a huge disservice. As Psychology Today explains, “From this perspective, someone either has a ‘disorder’ and requires treatment or they don’t need treatment and are fine.”5

The truth, of course, is that even people with minor mental health issues can benefit from treatment. And if a person with a diagnosable mental illness or disorder avoids labeling their situation correctly, they may also avoid seeking appropriate treatment.5

There’s no harm and only good to be done by working to speak about mental illness in the most correct, most helpful and least stigmatizing way possible.

By Stephanie Thomas, Contributing Writer


1 What is Mental Illness? American Psychiatric Association, August 2018.

2 Rubin, Gretchen. A Refinement of My Earth-Shattering Happiness Formula. com, February 12, 2007.

3 Tracy, Natasha. Brain Disorders: Mental Disorders vs. Behavioral Disorders. Healthy Place, May 20, 2018.

4 Barton, Laura Can We Destigmatize Mental Illness by Not Saying ‘Stigma?’ Healthy Place, February 26, 2018.

5 Benton, Sherry. The Difference between Mental Health and Mental Illness Psychology Today, April 12, 2018.