Eccentric or Mental Health Issue?

Mental health and mental illness fall on a continuum and there is no clear dividing line between what is normal and what is unhealthy.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) define mental health as a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his own abilities, can cope with normal life stresses, works productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his community. Unfortunately, only about 17 percent of U.S. adults are in a state of optimum mental health.

Diagnosing Mental Illness

Mental health professionals use the American Psychiatric Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose mental illnesses. The DSM lists the signs and symptoms of more than 300 mental health conditions, which sometimes change as the APA periodically revises the DSM.

The DMS distinguishes mental disorders from normal behavior by individuals' level of distress, disability, and increased risk of harming themselves or others.

What's Normal?

According to Francia Kappeler, author of the paper "Defining Mental Illness: Collectivist versus Individualist Approaches," there's a huge range of what constitutes normal behavior, and normalcy is often determined by who's defining it. Normalcy is ambiguous, often rooted in value judgments particular to certain cultures or societies, which view and respond to mental illnesses in distinct ways.

Kappeler says western countries, such as the U.S., tend to be individualistic societies and more prone to personality disorders, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and clinical depression. She says, "The individualist structure presents problems, placing greater responsibility on individuals for frailties that are actually symptomatic of a troubled culture."

In contrast, non-western cultures, such as the Middle East, India, and China, traditionally emphasize interdependence rather than independence, and extended family and the larger community support each other. These societies view individuals in relation to their social roles and obligations, and do not ostracize those with mental illnesses

So how do you know if someone's socially questionable behavior is cause for concern?

The Mayo Clinic says if an individual's behavior, thoughts, or feelings impair his ability to function, or if he exhibits some of these signs of mental illness, he may need professional help.

  • Marked changed in personality, eating, or sleeping
  • Inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • Strange or grandiose ideas
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged depression or apathy
  • Thinking or talking about suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior
  • Physical symptoms, such as fatigue, pain, digestive problems, dry mouth, sweating, weight loss or gain, rapid heart rate, or dizziness


Francia Kappeler, Francia. "Defining Mental Illness: Collectivist versus Individualist Approaches." Sonoma State University. Web. 29 March 2003.

Mayo Clinic. "Mental health: What's normal, what's not." Web. 23 March 2011

Centers for Disease Control. "Mental Health Basics." Web. 1 July 2011.