Mental Illness and Mental Distress: What’s The Difference?

Young sad mad sitting by the window

Mental illness and mental distress aren’t one and the same | Marjan_Apostolovic/iStock/Getty Images

The terms mental health, mental illness, and mental distress, also called emotional distress, all suffer from an unnecessary and extensive stigma. As psychiatrists, mental health professionals, and people with various mental health concerns try to navigate society away from this stigma, they find it helps to identify the differences between the terms “mental illness” and “mental distress.”

Interchangeably using the three terms can dramatize both under and overexaggerate what a person may be dealing with depending on the misuse. Psychiatrists revealed how they differ to help people better understand and help those dealing with mental illness or mental distress.

What are mental illnesses?

There are a lot of myths surrounding mental illnesses, the most common of which is that it can be “willed away.” Plenty of mental illnesses show very few physical symptoms, which can lead others to believe people with depression or bipolar disorder can easily manage or ignore their symptoms.

Psychologist Deborah Serani told Psych Central that, “Despite research showing how mental illness is a real medical illness, society continues to stigmatize people who have them.”

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines mental illness as “health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” They include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorders, among others.

Mental health problems

Mental health problems is an all-encompassing term that can describe anything from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life to serious long-term conditions (such as mental illnesses or disorders). The Mental Health Foundation wrote that most people who experience mental health problems are able to learn to live with them if they seek assistance early on.

Mental health problems can stem from external factors — you experience a setback at work or have trouble in a relationship — or can be a result of genetic factors like brain chemistry and psychological makeup. Some people find diagnoses controversial and don’t want to categorize people by their “label” or mental health problem, but they remain the most efficient way to classify various symptoms into a single group.

Mental health expert and patient

A mental health expert can guide you through recovery. | Monkeybusinessimages/ iStock/Getty Images Plus

Mental distress

Mental or emotional distress is something everyone experiences at some point in their life.

“The presence of anxiety, of a depressive mood or of a conflict within the mind, does not stamp any individual as having a psychological problem because, as a matter of fact, these qualities are indigenous to the species,” Charles Goodstein, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical Center, told WebMD.

 The Health and Wellbeing Changes Organization defines mental distress as: “A disturbing or unpleasant mental or emotional state, such as fear, anxiety, depression, confusion, mood swings … often impairing your ability to cope with day-to-day living.”

Visit to learn how you or someone you know can get help for recurring mental distress or a mental illness.