Mental health: What's normal, what's not

Understanding what's considered normal mental health can be tricky. See how feelings, thoughts and behaviors determine mental health and how to recognize if you or a loved one needs help. By Mayo Clinic Staff

What's the difference between mental health and mental illness? Sometimes the answer is clear, but often the distinction between mental health and mental illness isn't so obvious. For example, if you're afraid of giving a speech in public, does it mean you have a mental health condition or a run-of-the-mill case of nerves? Or, when does shyness become a case of social phobia?

Here's help understanding how mental health conditions are identified.

Why is it so tough to tell what's normal?

It's often difficult to distinguish normal mental health from mental illness because there's no easy test to show if something's wrong. Also, primary mental health conditions can be mimicked by physical disorders. Mental health conditions are judged not to be due to a physical disorder and are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms, as well as on how much the condition affects your daily life. Signs and symptoms can affect your:

  • Behavior. Obsessive hand-washing or drinking too much alcohol might be signs of a mental health condition.
  • Feelings. Sometimes a mental health condition is characterized by a deep or ongoing sadness, euphoria or anger.
  • Thinking. Delusions — fixed beliefs that are not changeable in light of conflicting evidence — or thoughts of suicide might be symptoms of a mental health condition.

What is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that explains the signs and symptoms of several hundred mental health conditions.

Mental health providers use the DSM to diagnose everything from anorexia to voyeurism and, if necessary, determine appropriate treatment. Health insurance companies also use the DSM to determine coverage and benefits and to reimburse mental health providers.

Jul. 20, 2013 See more In-depth