Understanding mental ill-health

Mental ill-health is an issue that affects all of us. Over four million Australians will experience mental illness this year alone. Many more of us will be affected as family members, friends or colleagues.

Defining mental ill-health

Mental ill-health is an umbrella term often used in policy documents and prevention work to describe both mental health concerns and mental illness.

While it is currently used by governments and organisations, it is not a preferred term to be used in community or with people who have personal or lived experience.

As the term is used differently by different stakeholders, it is necessary to consider the context in which it is used and check preferences of your audience. If used, the term ‘mental ill-health’ should be used as an umbrella term rather than to refer to mental health concerns or mental illness individually.

For some culturally and linguistically diverse groups, the word ‘mental’ may be taboo or have a negative connotation. A focus on wellbeing may be preferred.

Mental illness

A mental illness is the most commonly used term to describe conditions diagnosed by a medical professional that significantly affect how a person thinks, feels and interacts with other people.

Mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are diagnosed according to standardised criteria.

Alternative terms include:
  • Mental disorder
  • Mental health diagnosis
Usage guide:
  • A person living with mental illness
  • He has a mental illness diagnosis

Mental health problems

A mental health concern can interfere with how a person thinks, feels and behaves, but not to the extent that it meets the criteria for a mental illness diagnosis.14

Mental health problems are more common and likely to resolve in time, but if a mental health problem persists or increases in severity, it may develop into a mental illness.

Alternative terms include:
  • Mental health challenges
  • Mental health issues
  • Mental health hurdles
  • Mental health difficulties.

Visit the Our words matter: Glossary of terms on the Mindframe program website for more guidance on terms relating to mental health and wellbeing, mental ill-health, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders and alcohol and other drugs (AOD)

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