Emotional problem or mental illness

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Confused brain

Mental illness.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

What is the difference between an emotional problem and a mental illness?


Emotions and mental illness Is there really a difference?

Back in the Freudian days, they tended to think that there were two kinds of problems, Neurosis and Psychosis. Those with Neurosis had problems of living; they were too sad, too anxious or worried too much. Those with psychosis were clearly mentally ill. The heard voices saw things did things that looked irrational. We sent them away to the sanitarium, now called the state hospital. We also tended to mix the mentally ill in with those with an intellectual disability.

Then this nice neat system began to crumble.

Medication can reduce the symptoms of “mental illness.”

First, they discovered a medication that stopped or reduced the voices and other hallucinations. If a med could shut off voices, was the person with a psychotic disorder really “crazy” or did they have a treatable illness?

Then we found that voices were not an all or nothing phenomenon. They did not happen all the time to some of the people who had them. Sometimes hearing voices happens to the “normal” people. Very depressed people might hear voices sometimes and not others. Talk with them, watch their depression recede and the voices shut up.

Also, we found that most teenagers hear voices now and then. You hear a sound; do not know what it is and the brain interprets it as something you know well, like your own name.

Additionally, a lot of otherwise normal people hear angels or a religious figure; some people see or hear loved ones who have died. If it was a religious vision we were reluctant to call that psychosis.

The walls between emotional problems and mental illness began to get thin. In places, we thought we saw people crawl through the cracks in our system designed to keep the normal’s in one place and the mentally ill in the other places. We started calling those that crawled through the fence “borderlines” and other “personality disorders” because they seemed to live in the land between normal and not normal.

Recovery moments happen.

Then came various assorted recovery movements. There was recovery from alcoholism, addiction, and gambling. There was also the consumer movement and then we saw that people with serious and persistent mental illness can and do recover.

People, prominent, important people, came forward and talked about their struggles with mental illness and their own very personal stories of recovery.

The newest trend is to talk in terms of wellness and recovery. That life’s emotional problems are on a continuum. You may have times when you are stressed or depressed and your emotions get out of control. There are other times that your emotions are on a par with the best of them.

Acute versus chronic mental illnesses.

Clearly, for some people, life is more challenging than others. Some people have hereditary predispositions to having more of one problem or another. Some people have multiple problems to deal with. Some people’s problems are chronic and other people’s problems may get better or worse and then better again.

Some of those conditions we have come to call “mental illnesses” have an underlying structural difference in the brain. Some emotional problems are the result of difficult experiences in life. The brain rewires itself based on experiences. Not everyone has or should have all the same skills or the same challenges.

What we continue to see is that these things that bring the majority of people for mental health treatment are not those long-term underlying differences. What most trips folks up are the everyday problems of living, the unemployment, the relationship conflicts and the times of loneliness.

The line between those with a serious and persistent mental illness and those with a current emotional problem is becoming harder to find.

The truth is that everyone has times of emotional difficulties and everyone can recover and have a happier, better life.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

8 thoughts on “Emotional problem or mental illness

  1. Wonderful post, I think it also highlights the trait humans have to want to neatly define things, especially those things which stand out as abnormal or defective–human nature isn’t an exact science to be defined. Sometimes we can’t get an exact definition, especially in regard to emotional/mental distress, but even so we can still find solutions to lessen the troubles. I’m a definite believer in the brain’s ability to be rewired through positive experiences also, and I agree with your thought that “The truth is that everyone has times of emotional difficulties and everyone can recover and have a happier, better life.” Thanks for another insightful writing!


  2. Hello David,
    Or should I say…Dr. Miller?….What an interesting post! Very well put. I also want to say, THANK YOU for adding “Gambling” of what you wrote about Addictions. I AM A Recovering compulsive addicted gambler away form the BET 6+yrs. And it has been like Pulling Teeth to Shatter the STIGMA around this disease/addiction……Many still feel that Addicted Gambling is not a real illness, or addiction. I do also suffer from Bipolar 2 disorder, and Panic with agoraphobia. I really appreciated this balanced blog post! I’m a New Fan and following 🙂

    God Bless, *Catherine* 🙂


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