Understanding The Difference Between Mental Health & Mental Illness

Updated: Aug 5




What is Mental health?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is about being able to cope with the normal stresses of life (1).


It includes our psychological, emotional, and social well-being. More so, it’s also about how we respond to challenges in our lives such as stress, our ability to relate to others and make healthy choices. (2)


Mental health is also the state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes their abilities, are able to cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively, and can make a contribution to his or her community.


Good Mental Health

A person who is considered to have good mental health can (3):

  • Cope and manage stress

  • Form and maintain good relationships

  • Express and manage both positive and negative emotions


Poor Mental Health

A person with poor mental health (4):

  • Feel sad or down

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Withdrawal from friends and activities

  • Low energy

  • Excessive worrying and/or guilt

  • Extreme mood changes


What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness, or mental health disorder, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — such as disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors (5).


A few mental illnesses include:

  • Clinical depression

  • Anxiety disorder

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Schizophrenia


Mental Health VS Mental Illness

Every human being has their mental health just as they have their physical health.


But not everyone has a mental illness.


Mental illnesses are diagnosed and while your mental health is not.


Someone who has poor mental health may not be able to handle stress well in comparison to someone who has good mental health. A person with poor mental health may worry a lot which causes them to underperform under stressful conditions. However, this doesn’t mean that this person has a mental illness.


There is a stigma when talking about mental health. Like I mentioned before, when we think of mental health we associate it with a person having mental issues. As a result, most of us associate someone who has mental issues to be either crazy, insane or any other derogatory terms.


And I believe this is one of the main reasons why people don’t seek help. Its the fear of judgment.

But we should not confuse mental health for being mentally disabled or for having a mental illness because everyone needs to take care of their mental health.


Mental health is nearly invisible and easy to hide. A good way to filter how we are really feeling is through the use of social media.


Life Is Not Always Linear; There Will Be Obstacles

It would be nice to think that if I do this (A) then this (B) will happen.


But life isn’t always how we plan them out to be. For example, I’ve interviewed at jobs where I felt I did well, only to get turned down. I’ve gotten in a car accident because someone wasn’t paying attention, even though I would like to believe that I’m a good driver.


Things don’t always turn out how we want them to and someone who has good mental health is okay with that.


No matter what, you will get a few setbacks in life. But the quality of your mental health will allow you to move on from it and move forward or it will set you back even further.


Someone with good mental health will be able to take a set back and overcome the situation.


A person with poor mental health can take a similar set back and allow themselves to be negatively affected by it. A good example of this is from another blog post I had written that mentions the national layoffs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


The blog post, Your Services Are No Longer Required: Dealing With Job Loss (COVID-19) I mention the many opportunities one can take despite such hardship (job loss). Those who have a healthy mental health are able to see opportunities in such setbacks. Those who with poor mental health have a much difficult time overcoming them.


Our Mental Health

Our mental health is a reflection of how we manage our lives and how we respond to challenges.


When we don’t get the job we want, do we beat ourselves up about it? Or do we see the rejection as an opportunity to improve?


When life gives us lemons, are we making lemonade? or a lemon meringue pie?


Our mental health is always changing and it has always been a balance between risk factors and protective factors.


Risk Factors Vs. Protective Factors

As we live through our lives we are typically being influenced by our relationships and our environment.


It’s a balance between protective factors and risk factors (6).


Protective factors include having a sense of self-efficacy, having strong positive relationships (see blog post: The Cure For Loneliness is Building Meaningful Relationships) that are supportive. Cumulatively, these protective factors help sustain positive mental health.


Risk factors include can include illnesses and low socio-economic status can have the opposite effect of protective factors. They become disruptions in one’s life and can negatively influence one’s mental health.


However, each risk factor can offset the other.


That’s why it be mindful of our own mental health to help us cope with any situation that comes our way.


In conclusion…

Both our mental and physical health is important to our overall well-being. Depression has been known to increase the incidence of other health issues such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke (7). (see blog post: What Is Depression? And Do I Have It?)


Thus it is important to attend to our mental health just as much as we pay attention to our physical health.


Overall, mental health is a state of mind. This state of mind can be supported by protective factors or eroded by risk factors.


Mental Health Doesn’t Mean Mental Illness

Everyone has a mental health

NOT everyone has a mental illness

You can have poor mental health and NOT have a mental illness

You can also have good mental health and STILL have a mental illness.

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