Mental Health Basics for Teens and Parents – Part One

If you’re new to the psychology, you’re likely hearing a variety of catch phrases that might get confusing. For instance, you might hear the words “mental health” to describe the field of psychology or the services professionals provide to the community. For instance, you might hear the phrase “mental health field”. You might also hear the words “mental illness” to describe someone who is suffering from an illness or to describe a particular psychological disorder. This article is the first of two that will address these differences as well as explain other common phrases that are used by therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.


Essentially, mental health and mental illness are two states of mind. They are different psychological experiences – just as in experiencing physical health or physical illness. The Center for Disease Control, a federal program that works to protect Americans against harm and illness, defines mental health and mental illness in the following way:


Mental Health – A state of well being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities. He or she can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and has the capability to make a contribution to his or her community. Interesting research points to the fact that about 17% of American adults are in a state of optimal mental health. Research also points to the fact that overall mental health is related to improved physical health.


Mental Illness – This is a psychological state associated with distress and/or impaired functioning in one’s daily life. There might be an alteration in thinking, mood, or behavior, which fall into the diagnosable mental disorders. There might also be a physical condition that places one’s psychological state at risk. For instance, obesity has a strong relationship with depression.  Of the many psychological disorders, depression is a mental illness that affects both teens and adults. It is currently the most common type of mental illness, affecting 26% of American adults. Sadly, it’s been estimated that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability around the world.


As mentioned above, research indicates that mental illness is strongly associated with the occurrence of many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Sadly, millions of teens and adults engage in risk behaviors that can eventually lead to these illnesses such as physical inactivity, smoking, excessive drinking, and not getting enough sleep. It is for this reason that teens are frequently being encouraged by parents, teachers, and health professionals to get the right amount of sleep and to take care of the body. Doing so can help prevent both physical and mental illness.


It’s true that most of the field of psychology focuses on illness versus mental health. Activities like screenings to determine whether someone has a mental illness in the first place, diagnosing people, and treating them make up the majority of the field. However, recently, there have been some experts who are inviting a look at the positive aspects of one’s psychological state. In fact, Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, has precisely this kind of thinking. The second article in this series will take a look at the positive indicators in a person’s life that point to mental health versus mental illness.