What is mental health?

California State of Mind Essentials #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

By Katie Dineen

Only one-third of Californians who live with a mental illness receive the care they need. Our healthcare system often intervenes only when mental illness becomes serious or, in some cases, does not intervene at all. During Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re highlighting the need in our mental health system to prioritize reaching people early, talking about mental health and equipping them with the tools needed to maintain it. An essential step for people is understanding what mental health is and the differences between mental health, mental illness, and substance use disorders.

What is mental health?

Mental health is our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being,” alongside our mental development and abilities: how we think, feel, or act and how we cope with stress, interact with others, or make healthy choices. Your mental health changes during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, with new challenges arising along the way. So learning how to take care of your mental health early on is important.

Physical and mental health are equally important to our well-being, but unlike chatting with your family or doctor about a persistent cough, too often we don’t openly talk about our mental health. Without early intervention, sufficient support, and open conversations, our mental wellness can suffer and impact our overall mental health.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is used interchangeably with mental disorder and is defined as a “condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood.” Mental illnesses can be a result of genetics, environment, early trauma, or physical health.

Examples of mental ilness

Mental illness symptoms vary from person to person. Among the 40 million adults living with anxiety disorders, some have emotional symptoms, feeling tense or irritable, while others face physical symptoms, shortness of breath or insomnia.

Because each experience is different, it can be difficult for people to discuss their mental illness with others and seek support. A lack of resources and stigma around mental illness increases peoples’ silence and leads to feelings of loneliness despite the fact that there are so many people who can relate.

Four Facts about mental illness in the US

What is a substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder (SUD) is the “the repeated misuse of alcohol or drugs” and can happen simultaneously with mental illness. Overwhelming symptoms of mental illness can lead to SUD or an SUD can trigger a mental illness. The combination of a mental illness and a SUD is called a co-occuring disorder and it’s best if the two are treated together. Like mental illnesses, SUDs are different for each person; some people withdraw from friends and family, while others begin engaging in risky behaviors.

Though SUDs can be difficult to discuss, they are not uncommon. In 2020, seventeen million U.S. adults experienced both mental illness and a substance use disorder. People with a SUD can experience mood changes, trouble thinking or concentrating, and social isolation that makes social, family, and work-life difficult and treatment necessary.

What is brain health and why do we use this term?

Brain health is an umbrella term that encompasses mental health, mental illness, and substance use disorder. At the Steinberg Institute, we have integrated the term into our advocacy to combat discrimination and demystify mental illness. By choosing to use “brain health” over “behavioral health” we want to remove the focus from the word behavior, which implies a choice those who live with mental illness do not have. Because we believe brain illness should be addressed with the same urgency as physical illness, the term integrates body with brain and challenges the current understanding of mental health.

Mental health, mental illness, and substance use disorder each hold a distinct meaning, all of which are important in understanding how to speak about and advocate for brain health. With intervention and treatment, the recovery and management of mental illnesses and SUDs is possible, but prevention requires conversations about mental health to begin early on. Open dialogue about brain health is the first of many steps in creating a system that gets people the care they deserve.


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