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What Is the Difference between Mental Retardation and Mental Illness?

By Patti Kate
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mental retardation and mental illness are two different disorders. Mental retardation affects a person's intelligence and cognitive abilities, whereas mental illness will generally affect an individual's personality and mood, or emotional well being. Those suffering from mental illness may display aggressive or violent behavior, mood swings, or manic depression. Some forms of mental illness are referred to as psychosis. People with mental retardation have developmental delays and learning difficulties.

Although mental retardation and mental illness are both treatable, a professional diagnosis is needed to determine the most effective plan. In most cases, mental retardation will be identified early on, typically by the time a child reaches school age. He may show signs of developmental delays, such as being late to dress or feed himself, or unable to use the bathroom by himself. During his school years, he may have difficulty learning how to read and write, or do mathematical equations.

People who have been diagnosed with mental retardation will have a below average Intelligence Quotient (IQ). A person's IQ may be determined by taking an IQ test. Students with moderate mental retardation may be placed in special education classes, while adults with mild mental retardation may receive training in special workshops. These workshops may prepare a mentally retarded person for job placement.

Mental illnesses refer to any number of disorders that may disrupt a person's life, including schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. Schizophrenia is a form of mental illness that may cause delusions or hallucinations, as well as paranoia. Some schizophrenics also suffer from something referred to as multiple personality disorder.

While mental retardation is typically recognized in early childhood, symptoms of mental illness will not usually manifest until adulthood. Most patients who have been diagnosed with mental illness have not shown symptoms until their late teens or early 20s. Although not as common, mental illness may also afflict young children. Children may suffer from severe forms of panic disorders and phobias that also affect many adults.

The treatments available for mental retardation and mental illness also differ. Depending upon the type of mental illness a person is affected by, he may be prescribed antidepressants or other medications. Behavior modification therapy or psychotherapy is often recommended for someone suffering from various forms of mental illness. Children and adults diagnosed with mental retardation may benefit from recreational activities and speech or language therapy, as well as special education.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Scrbblchick — On Feb 05, 2014

And some persons with mental retardation also have a diagnosis of mental illness. Most psychiatric inpatient hospitals have units especially for these persons, since their mental retardation affects the way their mental illness manifests itself and is treated. Some medications that work well for persons of average intelligence do not work as well for persons with mental retardation.

These persons have unique needs, both medically and intellectually. Therapy methods change for these persons, therapy goals change, medication goals change -- everything changes. The one constant is the desire to make sure the person is stable and not apt to cause harm to self or others.

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