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What is a Mental Health Disorder?

Different people define the term “mental health disorder” in different ways. For the purposes of this website, we define mental health disorder as a condition that:

  • Affects a person’s thought processes, emotions, and/or behavior
  • Causes emotional distress or interferes with a person’s goals, lifestyle, and day-to-day activities
  • Is ongoing or chronic

Mental Health Problems vs. Mental Health Disorders

When making a distinction between mental health problems and mental health disorders, it can be helpful to draw comparisons to other, more common medical conditions.

Everyone has mental health problems from time to time, experiencing periods of feeling unusually sad, irritable, anxious, pessimistic, unmotivated, frustrated, or overwhelmed. Often these experiences are a normal response to difficult events, changes, or transitions. These mental health problems are similar to having a bad cold or the flu-- you feel miserable while they last, but you don’t expect them to last very long. Many people seek professional counseling to help get through these difficult periods, just like you may visit a doctor when you have a bad cold or the flu.

Mental health disorders are not like a cold or the flu. They are more similar to medical problems like diabetes or asthma in that they are chronic, often lifelong conditions that require ongoing care. Many people with mental health disorders like bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder must make adjustments to their lifestyles in order to stay healthy. But as with diabetes, it is possible to manage a mental health disorder while living a fulfilling and productive life.

This website is devoted to helping U-M students who have chronic mental health disorders. If you are having mental health problems but have not been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, we recommend visiting the MiTalk website or the Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) website.


Next > Information about Specific Mental Health Disorders

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