Emotion or Mental Illness?

Too many times I have heard people exclaim, “I am so depressed; my favorite TV show was canceled.” Or, “I’m literally having a panic attack right now I’m so excited!” Or a very popular phrase, “She’s so bipolar.” These are the comments that remind me of how ignorant and misinformed so many people are when talking about mental illness. But it got me wondering, “Do people really think that mental illness is controllable and comparable to everyday emotions?” So, I’m going to break that question down by recalling my own experiences and research.

 Just to get some insight into this subject, here is the definition of emotion given in Webster’s Dictionary:

Definition of emotion

1a: a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body

b: a state of feeling

cthe affective aspect of consciousness FEELING

Now, here is the definition of mental illness according to the American Psychiatric Association:

Definition of Mental illness

“Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

 According to these definitions, emotion is “a strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object…” Whereas mental illnesses are considered “health conditions” that cause distress and problems functioning! Normal emotions are healthy and useful, but when we assign these simple feelings the names of serious disorders, it’s extremely offensive.

 Notice above that an emotion is directed toward a specific object. Many of us wish that our illness only decided to present itself when we came into contact with a specific object. But, for most of us, it’s all day, every day. And, unlike anger or excitement, we cannot control how we react. Our disorders are normally caused by trauma or chemical imbalances in the brain. (Many other factors play a role in mental illness such as genetics, environment, personality, etc.)

 A certain thought comes to mind concerning something my friend told me once: “I understand your anxiety because I had to sleep with the lights on when I was eleven. But, when I found a relationship with the Lord, it went away.” Now, I know she meant well, but it really shocked me. This is an instance where she confused normal childhood fears and emotions with a very serious mental disorder. And this happens way too often in our society.

 I suppose the main problem with these types of beliefs and views of mental illness isn’t just that they are extremely inaccurate. The problem is that when we refer to these debilitating afflictions as simple emotions or feelings, we delegitimize the seriousness and severity of the disorder. So, if someone you know often confuses emotion with mental illness, I encourage you to explain the difference and suggest a different way of wording how they’re feeling. 

 In conclusion, anxiety and depression involve many emotions, but emotions are not mental illnesses. Disappointment is not depression. Excitement is not a panic disorder. A rude person is not (necessarily) bipolar, and emotions are not mental disorders. 




Girls & Boys Town National Hotline

(800) 448-3000

International Suicide Hotlines

National Hopeline Network


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

(800) 273-TALK (8255)

National Youth Crisis Hotline

(800) 442-HOPE (4673)

 National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Hopeline

(800) 622-2255

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