Mental health condition vs mental disorder: All you need to know about their differences

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When discussing mental health conditions and mental disorders/illnesses in Nigeria, most people think about people on the street with mental health challenges or an “excuse by Gen Z” to avoid responsibilities. However,  mental health is a major part of our lives, and mental health conditions are more common than we realise. 

Some people may suffer from one form of mental health condition or disorder without realising it due to ignorance. Also, some people use these terms without properly understanding the distinctions between them. Hence at the end of this article, you will understand each term and its nuances and know when mental health care is needed. 

What is Mental Health?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables a person to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well, work well, and contribute to their community. 

Mental health is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape our world. The WHO describes it as a basic human right that is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.

While some people may want to describe mental health as a state where a person has no mental disorder, it is more than the absence of mental disorders. This is because it exists on a complex continuum and is experienced differently from one person to another at varying degrees.

According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), mental health includes a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being, which affects how people think, feel and act. 

According to a Psychologist, lecturer and founder of the Psychebabble Foundation, Sandra Anyahaebi, mental health is the overall mental well-being of an individual–  spiritually, physically, emotionally, or psychologically.

“Mental health as a term on its own is your overall mental well-being, which includes spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological and al-round,” she noted.

Another psychologist and gender equality and social inclusion officer, Gimbiya Bitiyong, described mental health as the general condition of a person’s psychological and emotional health. 

“When you are looking at mental health, you are looking at the general condition and well-being of a human being psychologically and emotionally. It is just like when we discuss physical health, which has to do with the state of the body. Now mental health has to do with the state of the mind, psychological and emotional well-being, and that is essentially what it focuses on.”

What is Mental Disorder?

A mental disorder involves significant thinking, emotional regulation, or behaviour disturbances.

A mental disorder is characterised by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour. It is usually associated with distress or impairment in important areas of functioning.

Ms Anyahaebi noted that mental disorders or mental illnesses are mental health conditions that have been diagnosed, while mental health conditions are symptoms related to mental disorders that are not yet diagnosed. 

She explained that mental health generally is on a spectrum, so you don’t just go from being mentally healthy to totally ill or having a diagnosable mental health issue. There is an in-between, and it is this in-between stage that practitioners or mental health professionals usually refer to as mental health conditions. 

“Mental disorders are diagnosable mental health issues. So it can be used interchangeably with mental illness and sometimes mental health conditions. But if you want to put a distinctive difference between them, a mental disorder and a mental illness are usually diagnosable issues, while mental health conditions most practitioners use as an overview of different mental health issues. 

“So, say you are struggling with stress that is now beginning to affect work, your relationship with people, etc, some people might call it mental health conditions, but yes, they are used most of the time interchangeably. Mental illness or mental disorder represents diagnosable mental health conditions by professionals, while mental health condition is just like an in-between where you are experiencing some symptoms of mental health challenge but is not diagnosable.

“If someone is having difficulty eating or sleeping and struggling with their mood, people can say that might be a symptom of a mental health condition. Why they are saying, that is because it is not diagnosed yet. But when a person gets diagnosed with, say, depression or bipolar or whatever, at that point, we can say you are struggling with a mental illness or mental disorder.”

Ma Bitiyong also agreed that mental disorders and mental illnesses are used interchangeably as if they mean the same thing. She also noted that one thing that should be considered when talking about mental disorders is that conditions like depression have to be enduring. 

She explained that many things like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorders, and others come under mental disorders. 

“When we are talking about mental disorders, this is when this psychological and emotional well-being has been tampered with to the point that it can lead to clinical differences in how a person behaves or reacts psychologically or emotionally. Mental disorders are interchangeably used with mental illnesses. They mean the same thing. It is a disruption to your psychological and emotional well-being. 

“There are other things that can temporarily shake up your mental well-being, say if a person is dealing with grief. For that particular moment, the person can go through some form of depression or anxiety. Still, it is not enough to classify it as a mental disorder because that is a temporary reaction. But when we start looking at things like Down syndrome that are enduring or permanent or things like Aspergers, we can say that those are mental disorders because they are enduring and severe, not temporary mood swings and changes.”

In 2019, the WHO revealed that 1 in every 8 people in the world live with a mental disorder. Examples of mental disorders include; anxiety disorder, depression, eating disorder, schizophrenia, Bipolar disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), disruptive behaviour and dissocial disorder, panic disorder, phobia, social anxiety disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and neurodevelopmental disorders. 

Although mental disorder is sometimes referred to as mental health conditions, the latter is a broader term. 

What, then, are Mental Health Conditions?

Mental health conditions as a medical concept is a broader term covering mental disorders, psychosocial disabilities and other mental states associated with significant distress, impairment in functioning, or risk of self-harm.

You can find a comprehensive list of mental health conditions at the Mental Health Centre of America here.

Ms Bitiyong also describes mental health conditions as the general state of your mental well-being, whether it has been disrupted or not. 

“Mental conditions just have to do with the general state of your mental well-being. It is not a disorder or illness but just the general state. It could be well-being or disruption to the well-being.”

Who is at risk of a mental health condition? 

Depending on different factors, anyone at any time can experience a mental health disorder. A diverse set of individual, family, community, and structural factors can combine to protect or undermine a person’s mental health. 

While some people are more resilient to these factors, people exposed to adverse circumstances like poverty, violence, disability, and inequality are at higher risk. Individual psychological and biological factors, such as emotional skills and genetics, also reduce or increase risk factors.  

What are the causes of mental health conditions? 

Individuals go through several phases throughout their lives, and their experiences affect their mental health. 

A complex interplay of individual, social and structural stresses and vulnerabilities determines your mental health. For example, people’s individual psychological and biological factors, such as emotional skills, substance use and genetics, can make people more vulnerable to mental health conditions.

Exposure to unfavourable social, economic, geopolitical and environmental circumstances like poverty, violence, inequality and environmental deprivation also increases a person’s risk of experiencing mental health conditions.

These determinates can manifest themselves at any stage of a person’s life, but those that occur during developmentally sensitive periods, like early childhood, are particularly detrimental. For example, harsh parenting and physical punishment undermine child health, and bullying is a leading risk factor for mental health conditions.

Protective factors similarly occur throughout our lives and serve to strengthen resilience. These protective factors include our individual social and emotional skills and attributes, positive social interactions, quality education, decent work, safe neighbourhoods and community cohesion, among others.

Mental Healthcare 

There are services devoted or related to the treatment of mental illnesses and the improvement of mental health. 

Mental healthcare should be addressed holistically, and it is the responsibility of everyone, from the government to individuals. It is vital to protect and promote the mental well-being of all and address the needs of people with mental health conditions.

Mental healthcare cuts across community-based mental healthcare, institutional mental healthcare, and individual meant healthcare. Mental health services should be integrated into general healthcare, typically in general hospitals and through task-sharing with non-specialist care providers in primary healthcare, mental health centres and teams, psychosocial rehabilitation, peer support services, child protection, school health services, and prisons.


Mental healthcare is important. So in the context of national efforts to strengthen mental health, it is vital to protect and promote the mental well-being of all and address the needs of people with mental health conditions.

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