Mental Distress: History
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Mental distress (or psychological distress) is a term used, by some mental health practitioners and users of mental health services, to describe a range of symptoms and experiences of a person's internal life that are commonly held to be troubling, confusing or out of the ordinary. Mental distress can potentially lead to a change of behavior, affect a person's emotions in a negative way, and affect their relationships with the people around them. Certain traumatic life experiences such as: bereavement, stress, lack of sleep, use of drugs or alcohol, assault, abuse or accidents can induce mental distress. This may be something which resolves without further medical intervention, though people who endure such symptoms longer term are more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness. This definition is not without controversy as some mental health practitioners would use the terms mental distress and mental illness interchangeably. Some users of mental health services prefer the term mental distress in describing their experience as they feel it better captures that sense of the unique and personal nature of their experience, while also making it easier to relate to, since everyone experiences distress at different times. The term also fits better with the social model of disability.

  • mental health services
  • social model
  • mental health

1. Difference Between Mental Distress and Mental Disorder

As noted before, some psychiatrists may use these two terms interchangeably. However, it can be argued that there are fundamental variations between mental distress and mental disorder. Mental distress has a wider scope than the related term mental illness. Mental illness refers to a specific set of medically defined conditions. A person in mental distress may exhibit some of the broader symptoms described in psychiatry, without actually being ‘ill’ in a medical sense.[1] People with mental distress may also exhibit temporary symptoms on a daily basis, while patients diagnosed with mental disorder may potentially have to be treated by a psychiatrist.

2. Types

The following are types of major mental distress:[2]

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder[3]
  • Schizophrenia

3. Symptoms and Causes

The symptoms for mental distress include a wide range of physical to mental conditions.[4] Physical symptoms may include sleep disturbance, anorexia (lack of appetite), loss of menstruation for women, headaches, chronic pain, and fatigue. Mental conditions may include difficulty in anger management, compulsive/obsessive behavior, a significant change in social behavior, a diminished sexual desire, and mood swings.

Minor mental distress cases are caused by stress in daily problems, such as forgetting your car keys or being late for an event. However, the major types of mental distress (see section above) can be caused by other important factors. It is important to distinguish between Chemical imbalances in the brain is one of the causes that happen when there is a disequilibrium of chemicals inside the brain's neural pathways, that can lead to irrational decisions and emotional pain.[5] For example when your brain lacks serotonin, a chemical primary in regulating a brain's functioning, this deficiency of serotonin can lead to depression, appetite changes, aggression, and anxiety. A second cause for mental distress can be exposure to severely distressing experiences, such as life threatening situations and experiences. A third cause, although in very rare cases, can be inheritance. Some research has shown that very few people may have the genetics for the potential to develop mental distress. However, there are many factors that must be accounted for. Mental distress is not a contagious disease that can be caught like the common cold. Mental distress is a psychological condition.[6]

4. In the United States

4.1. Among African-Americans

The social disparities associated with mental health in the Black community have remained constant over time. According to the Office of Minority Health, Black people comprise 12.9% of the U.S. population, yet they are 30% more likely than European Americans to report serious psychological distress. Moreover Black people are more likely to have Major Depressive Disorder, and communicate higher instances of intense symptoms/disability.[7] For this reason, researchers have attempted to examine the sociological causes and systemic inequalities which contribute to these disparities in order to highlight issues for further investigation.[8] Nonetheless, much of the research on the mental well-being of Black people are unable to separate race, culture, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or behavioural and biological factors.[9] According to Hunter and Schmidt (2010), there are three distinct beliefs embraced by Black people which speak to their socio-cultural experience in the United States: racism, stigma associated with mental illness, and the importance of physical health. According to Raymond Depaulo, M.D., African Americans are less likely to report depression due to heavy social stigma within their community and culture.[10] All of these social aspects of mental health can create a lot of distress. Therefore, discrimination within the healthcare community and larger society, attitudes related to mental health, and general physical health contribute largely to the mental well-being of Black people .[11]

There are also disparities with mental health when it comes to Black women. One of the reasons why Black women tend to hesitate when it comes to mental health support and treatment is the aura of the Strong Black Woman schema or S.B.W. According to Watson and Hunter, Various scholars have traced the origins of the S.B.W. race-gender schema to slavery and have suggested that the schema persists because of the struggles that African-American women continue to experience, such as financial hardship…racism, and sexism.[12] Watson and Hunter state that Black women, due to the Strong Black Woman schema have a tendency to handle tough and difficult situations alone.

Demographic and societal factors

There has been a history of disparity and exclusion in regards to the treatment of Black Americans which consists of slavery, imprisonment in the criminal justice system, the inability to vote, marry, attend school, or own property amongst other factors. These factors have attributed to the increase of mental distress in the Black community and due to the lack of resources afforded/known in the community also leads to a lack of resources and treatments available for members of the community to seek and receive some for of help.[13]

African-American youth

Comparable to their adult counterparts, Black adolescents experience mental health disparities. The primary reasons for this have been stipulated to be discrimination, inadequate treatment, and underutilization of mental health services, though Black youth have been shown to have higher self-esteem than their white counterparts.[14] Similarly, children of immigrants, or second-generation Americans, often encounter barriers to optimal mental well-being.[15] Discrimination and its effects on mental health are evident in adolescents’ ability to achieve in school and overall self-esteem.[16] Researchers are unable to pinpoint exact causes for Black teenagers’ underutilization of mental health services. One study attributed this to using alternative methods of support instead of formal treatments.[17] Moreover, Black youth used other means of support, such as peers and spiritual leaders.[18] This demonstrates that Black teens are uncomfortable disclosing personal matters to formal supports. It is difficult to decipher if this is cultural or a youth-related issue, as most teens do not choose to access formal supports for their mental health needs.[19]

The content is sourced from:


  1. "Mental Distress Changes". 
  7. Shim et al., 2009
  8. Hunter & Schmidt, 2010; Gonzalez et al., 2008; Shim et al., 2009; Griffith et al., 2009; Levin, 2008
  9. Griffith et al., 2009
  10. "Black And Depressed: Overcoming The Stigma". 
  11. Hunter & Schmidt, 2010
  12. Watson, Natalie (2015). "Anxiety and Depression among African American Women: The Costs of Strength and Negative Attitudes toward Psychological Help-Seeking". Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 21 (4): 604–612. doi:10.1037/cdp0000015. PMID 25602466.
  13. "Black & African American Communities and Mental Health". Mental Health America. 
  14. Seaton et al., 2008; Thomas et al., 2009; Wu et al., 2010; Alexandre et al., 2010; Freedenthal, 2007; Hughes, 1989
  15. Bridges et al., 2010; Thomas et al., 2009; Dotterer et al., 2009; Rumbaut, 1994; Nicolas et al., 2009; Seaton et al., 2008
  16. Seaton et al., 2008
  17. Freedenthal, 2007
  18. Freedenthal, 2007
  19. Silverman et al., 2001
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