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The Difference Between a Mental Health Disorder and a Personality Disorder

Although they both can determine the actions and reactions of a person, mental health disorders and personality disorders are quite different. Understanding the differences between these disorders can help alleviate stigmas in society and increase awareness about how to help.


Mental Health Disorders

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines mental illness as “a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feeling, or behavior (or all three) and causes that person distress and difficulty in functioning.” Mental health disorders often vary in severity, depending on the person. 

Some common examples of mental health disorders include: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

In some people, their mental illness symptoms are mild and not easily recognized through their behavior or mannerisms. Because a person doesn’t “look” sick, their symptoms and diagnosis may be belittled or stigmatized. This issue is a cause for concern, especially considering that an estimated 20% of the U.S. population (or one of every five people) suffers from a mental health disorder. This number is expected to rise with the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation and stress it has caused.

Approximately 5% of adults in the United States suffer from mental health disorders so severe that they can’t function normally in society. The number of children being diagnosed with mental health disorders is also on the rise, most notably depression, anxiety, and ADHD. For many people, mental illness is passed down genetically, while others are stimulated by their environment. Trauma is a common trigger for mental health disorders, while predetermined genetics can make a person more likely to develop them. 


Personality Disorders 

As defined by NIMH, a personality disorder is “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.” Personality disorders are fairly common, with approximately 9% of U.S. adults having a personality disorder. A personality disorder is often fixed, with consistent challenges or difficulties associated with the disorder. Conversely, borderline personality disorder is when a person experiences intense changes in mood or self-image. Personality disorders can be minor or severe, similar to mental health disorders. 

Most people with personality disorders do not “look” sick, intensifying the stigma and lack of understanding by society. The main criteria for a personality disorder is that people have a distorted sense of who they are. Some types of personality disorders include:

  • Paranoid
  • Schizoid
  • Dissocial
  • Emotionally unstable
  • Histrionic
  • Anankastic
  • Anxious (or avoidant)
  • Dependent

There are various characteristics for each that must be present to diagnose a specific personality disorder. Another layer of analysis lies in the extremity of a person’s condition, which is typically defined as mild, moderate, or severe.

  • Mild: All the criteria for a personality disorder are met. Though there are some issues, this person can function in society by working, having relationships, being part of a family, etc. A person with a mild personality disorder may have severe trouble in certain contexts like self-direction or self-worth but function well in others. Mild personality disorders are not associated with harm to oneself or others. 
  • Moderate: All the criteria for a personality disorder are met, but this person also has a significant amount of problems functioning in society. Some struggle with identity, sense of self, the ability to form intimate relationships, or the ability to control impulses. The most common problems are with personal relationships, which may affect other aspects of daily life such as job performance, family, or intimacy. Moderate personality disorder can sometimes be associated with harm to oneself or others. 
  • Severe: All the criteria for a personality disorder are met, but this person has a significantly hard time functioning in society. Those with severe personality disorder suffer from a lack of sense of self so severe that they may have no idea who they are. This affects all relationships and impacts all aspects of daily life, including social, occupational, educational, and family. Severe personality disorders are often associated with harm to oneself or others. 


The Main Difference Between the Two 

The confusion between mental health and personality disorders often lies in their similar symptoms. People with personality disorders may display certain traits of mental health disorders, which could lead to a wrong diagnosis and wrong treatment. The main difference between personality disorders and mental health disorders lies in the person’s sense of who they are. Those with personality disorders report a loss of “self” that is more severe than those who suffer from mental health disorders. Personality disorders are essentially a cluster of mental health disorders that combine to take a form of their own, distorting the person’s sense of self.


If you or a loved one are suffering from a mental health disorder or personality disorder, it can be polarizing and scary. With the stigmatization of mental health issues and the general lack of knowledge surrounding these disorders, a “normal” life may seem almost impossible. At RECO Intensive, we understand that mental health disorders and personality disorders are unique and should be treated as such. We also understand that your mental state can feel out of control or dangerous, depending on the severity of your disorder. At RECO Intensive, we want to help you understand your mental health or personality disorder. Our professional staff and experienced alumni can help you to set goals, create boundaries, and participate in therapy in a safe and controlled environment. At RECO Intensive, we offer personalized plans and therapies to cater specifically to you. To learn more, call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future. 

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