Mental health and mental illness: is there a difference?
Do you use the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ interchangeably? Or do you have a clear distinction in your head between the two?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
This definition seems to view mental health from a positive perspective, where a person is able to manage their life free of any major issues. But when many people talk about their mental health, it is often from a more negative perspective, with them talking about their emotional struggles and inability to go about their day-to-day life like they normally would. Perhaps then mental health is on a sliding scale between positive and negative, where at times, we are able to cope with life and so experience a state of positive mental health, and at other times, life feels too much and we find it difficult to face each day because we are in a state of negative mental health.
But what about mental illness? Does a state of poor mental health mean someone is mentally ill? Not necessarily. Illness refers to the presence of disease, whereas wellness refers to the extent to which a person feels positive about their life, both in terms of physical and mental well-being.
So, being mentally healthy suggests the absence of illness. Yet, it isn’t always as clear-cut as this. Thinking about it in terms of physical health can be useful. Some days, we may be feeling under the weather, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have an illness or disease. It is the same with mental health. Some days we may find life difficult to cope with, but it doesn’t mean we have a mental illness. On the other hand, there are many people who have a diagnosed mental illness who experience periods of positive mental well-being.
The important thing to realise here is that mental health and mental illness are not black or white or all or nothing. As mentioned above, they are states of experience that are on a spectrum. Having a diagnosed mental illness therefore does not mean you will always be mentally ill or always experience symptoms of the mental illness. There may be times where the illness is triggered by certain events in life, but that does not mean it will become all consuming.
Misunderstandings around what mental health and mental illness mean are troublesome for a number of reasons. Not understanding what mental health and mental illness are can result in people being stigmatised, which can lead to feelings of shame, guilt or low self-worth for a person who is struggling with how they are feeling, their ability to function as they normally would and how they interact with others. Even today there are many harmful and dangerous attitudes towards people who experience psychiatric problems, particularly people with a mental illness.
Someone who is experiencing mental illness may not want to seek help or tell anyone about what they are experiencing as they fear others will think they have ‘lost the plot’, are ‘making a fuss’ or ‘attention seeking’. With one in three people likely to experience metal health problems at some point in their life, it seems incredibly contradictory that such negative attitudes still exist about mental illness. But it is these poor attitudes that can lead the person struggling with their mental state to blame themselves for their issues, which only makes the way they are feeling worse. A person may be secretive about their experiences because of fear of being stigmatised, which prevents them from getting help.
Higher levels of stigma towards people with mental illness can result in greater self-stigma, disadvantages regarding employment, higher incidence of suicide and lower perceived health status, all of which encourage health inequality.
Anyone can experience times where they feel they cannot cope, aren’t in control or can’t get out of their low mood or negative mindset. It is nothing to be embarrassed about and it does not mean someone will always feel this way. A period of poor mental health or having a diagnosed mental illness does not define who you are as a person. It is something that can be managed or overcome with appropriate, individualised support.