The Words We Use When We Talk About Mental Illness



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Why talk about mental illness?

In measuring happiness and life satisfaction, a United Nations report revealed that mental health explains more of the variance of happiness in Western countries than income does. In fact, the authors found that mental illness was the strongest predictor of misery, more so than poverty, unemployment or even physical illness.

If you just re-read that last sentence thinking you must not have understood it properly or that it has to be wrong somehow… let’s take a closer look at why the presence of a mental illness can be, and often is, a more potent influence on a person’s happiness– or lack thereof– than income, employment and physical health.

Just to clarify: in presenting this data we by no means intend to perpetuate the notion that people with a mental illness are doomed… on the contrary, research shows we can be successfully treated & can indeed live satisfied lives. BUT these disorders need to be taken seriously in order for things to get better (and the data invariably points to that).

Why mental illnesses are serious:

  • 1 in 5 people will suffer from one of these disorders in the course of their lifetime [*].

  • Approximately 4 to 5% of the cases become truly disabling [*].

  • 90 % of suicides are related to a mental illness [1] and suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds worldwide [2].

  • They start very early in life: 50% will have onset by age 14 and 75 % by the age of 24.


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According to Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illnesses (MI) are the chronic disorders of young people. The fact that on average MI start early in life distinguishes them from most of the major illnesses (i.e. cancer, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension) that we think about as being sources of morbidity and mortality.

A mental illness is an “invisible illness”, But not always a disability.

It’s possible to say MI's are Invisible Illnesses considering that, unlike other diseases, they show no outward signs. We’re using this term to emphasize the fact that the symptoms are invisible to the onlooker, which means the individual might look completely healthy, making it harder for others to acknowledge there’s anything wrong or that the person’s pain is real.

And yet, as stated above, for about 1 in 20 people the MI becomes truly disablingwhich means that the condition significantly impairs normal activities of daily living.