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mental illness

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Many organizations use “mental illness” to emphasize that mental health disorders are clinical conditions, since in the past many psychological disorders were depicted as personal failings or dismissed as “hysteria.” But some advocates say that “mental illness” puts too much emphasis on biology, since many psychological conditions stem from environmental causes like trauma. In addition, “mental illness” can have a negative connotation of sickness or disease.

For a term like this, it’s especially useful to pay attention to and understand the terms that people use to refer to themselves to avoid getting ahead of how someone defines their own condition or diagnosis. It’s a very different thing for someone to refer to themself as “mentally ill,” versus assigning that label when writing about them, outside direct quotes. “Mental health condition” is a more expansive term. 

Sometimes, though, using “mental illness” is unavoidable. For example, a lot of research on mental health will measure the prevalence of “any mental illness” (AMI) and “serious mental illness” (SMI). AMI refers to any mental health condition ranging from mild to severe. SMI refers to any mental health condition that interferes with daily functioning. Any diagnosis can be an AMI or SMI depending on the circumstances, although some conditions (like schizophrenia or bipolar) are more likely to be labeled SMI. These terms are measurements, so they can’t be rephrased without changing their meaning.

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Mental illness is a phrase used in mental health research to measure prevalence and seriousness of disorders that interfere with daily functioning. The frame of illness can be helpful in reinforcing that clinical mental health conditions are health issues and not personal failings. But the term can also carry negative connotations, so context matters when deciding when and how to use it. “Mental health condition” is a more expansive term.