The difference between mental health and mental illness

Too many times, people are getting mental health and mental illness around the wrong way. Or they might assume they are the same thing. Yet they are very different, and I am going to explain how.

What is mental health?

Mental health is something everyone has, just like physical health. It covers what state our mind is in, how we are thinking, feeling and reacting to situations and ourselves. At different times of our life, our mental health will vary from high to low. If we have high or good mental health, we will be approaching life with a positive mindset. Our relationships will be healthy, and will be tackling life’s challenges in good ways. But if our mental health is low, or bad, all of these things won’t be ideal. We will be negative, and our relationships will be having problems. We also are unlikely to be dealing with problems in ways we should.

Most people will vary from good to bad mental health during their lives.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a mental health disorder. The World Health Organisation stated that roughly 1 in 4 people will experience a mental illness at some stage of their life. Mental illness is generally longer lasting and symptoms are more intense, compared to bad mental health. The symptoms themselves vary depending on the type of illness, of which there are many.

Poor mental health can lead to, or be the result of a mental illness. Though some people can have good mental health but still be mentally ill. Likewise, your mental illness could be minor but you can still have poor mental health. Other causes of mental illness are abuse and/or trauma, abnormal brain activity or chemistry. There is also a lot of evidence that it can passed on through your genes.

You can be happy and mentally ill, or sad and not mentally ill.
You can be happy and still have a mental illness. You can also be sad and not be mentally ill.

Why is it important to distinguish the two terms?

Stigma and general understanding. Lets pretend Bob has poor mental health, but no mental illness. But Bob gets confused and thinks that he is mentally ill. Bob will be recovering fast from his poor mental health, which will lead his friends to assume everyone with a mental illness can get over it just as easy as Bob. This of course can lead to poor advice to other sufferers. Furthermore, Bobs friends would have seen how Bob was with his ‘illness’, and identified that with everyone else they know. Thus incorrectly leading them to the conclusion that everyone get mentally ill.

Even people who should know better, get it wrong. Some who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, are claiming that everyone gets mentally ill. In a support group I help monitor, someone asked if this was true. To my horror, about 80% of replies said that it is!!!

What else might happen if Bob and others like him, claim they are mentally ill? Well, someone who has an illness, might get frustrated because they are not recovering. They might not understand that Bob is not actually mentally ill.


Mental health is something everyone has . It varies depending on our surroundings and circumstances. Poor mental health is not alarming and doesn’t take much to recover from. Mental illness is a medical condition that only a quarter of people get, is dependent on traumatic events or relationships, and/or our biology. A mental illness is a serious issue that can take a long time (if at all) to fully recover from.

You can have poor mental health, a mental illness, or both. Mixing up the two can cause a lot of confusion and increased stigma.

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