Mental Health Basics

What is Mental Illness?


Mental illnesses are conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Such conditions may be occasional or long-lasting (chronic) and affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day.


What is Mental Health?


Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. [1] Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.


Although the terms are often used interchangeably, poor mental health and mental illness are not the same things. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. Likewise, a person diagnosed with a mental illness can experience periods of physical, mental, and social well-being.


Why is Mental Health Important for Overall Health?


Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. Mental illness, especially depression, increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness. [2]


Can your mental health change over time?

Yes, it’s important to remember that a person’s mental health can change over time, depending on many factors. When the demands placed on a person exceed their resources and coping abilities, their mental health could be impacted. For example, if someone is working long hours, caring for an ill relative or experiencing economic hardship they may experience poor mental health.


How common are mental illnesses?

Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States.


  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime. [3]

  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year. [4]

  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness. [5]

  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. [6]

What causes mental illness?

There is no single cause for mental illness. A number of factors can contribute to risk for mental illness, such as


  • Early adverse life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse (for example, child abuse, sexual assault, witnessing violence, etc.)

  • Experiences related to other ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as cancer or diabetes.

  • Biological factors, such as genes or chemical imbalances in the brain

  • Use of alcohol or recreational drugs

  • Having few friends

  • Having feeling of loneliness or isolation

Content source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[1] Strengthening Mental Health Promotion External. Fact sheet no. 220. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.


[2] Chronic Illness & Mental Health External. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. 2015.


[3] Kessler RC, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, et al. Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of mental disorders in the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative. World Psychiatry. 2007; 6(3): 168-176.


[4] Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2016.


[5] Merikangas KR, He J, Burstein M, et al. Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in US Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Study-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2010; 49(10): 980-989. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2010.05.017.


[6] Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2016.

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