The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

Over the last little while, I’ve seen a video shared around about mental health and illness, specifically depression and anxiety. The man in the video talks about the society and culture we live in. He talks about stress and isolation, technology and human connection. His main point is that because of these conditions, it makes sense that people have depression and anxiety. This video upsets me because it doesn’t highlight the important difference between mental health and mental illness.

Mental health and mental illness often get confused. If we don’t clear it up, it will do nothing to end the stigma surrounding mental illness. Instead it will reinforce ideas and attitudes that are wrong and harmful.

Everyone has mental health. Just like we all have physical health. We can be healthy, or hurt, or sick. Not only so, but these things can change; there are ups and downs. Just like your physical health doesn’t always stay the same, your mental health doesn’t either.

Mental health refers to our mental well-being. And that’s important! Really, that is what this video is trying to talk about. You can have bad mental health without having a mental illness. And similarly, you can have good mental health even if you have a mental illness. Like I said, we all have ups and downs. But we really need to stop using “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably. They’re not the same thing.

Many mental illnesses are chronic. They do not stem from our circumstance or our surroundings like the man in the video opines. Many are hereditary and caused by chemicals imbalances in the brain. These types of illnesses can be compounded by outside elements, but aren’t caused by them.

When you suggest circumstance is the cause of someone’s chronic illness, you’re suggesting there is something they can do about it, that they can “get over it.” You’re suggesting that if it lingers, it’s because they are doing something wrong. That “time heals all wounds,” or some other bullshit. What you’re thinking about here is mental health, and you’re dismissing their chronic, incurable mental illness.

Some people have suggested that once you’re “stable” you should stop taking medication. In some cases, with medical supervision and counselling, this can be be an option. But largely, this idea ignores the fact that it’s the medication keeping them stable in the first place.

I’ve seen some people with chronic illnesses take these messages to heart. Some, like me, are hurt by what’s being said. But I’ve also seen worrisome responses. I’ve seen that some people believe when they’ve reached happier circumstances–now they’re in good mental health–they’re “over it” and decide to cease treatment. This can be a viable option for some, as I said before, when being monitored by a doctor. But this is definitely not the best option for those who mental illnesses are chronic and severe. This can be a dangerous road to go down. Just because you’re over all mental health is good doesn’t mean your mental illness has gone away.

These kinds of ideas negatively impact people with mental illness and do nothing to spread awareness. A lot of the time, that’s not what people like the man in the video are trying to do. They are seeking to share what they see as insight. But here’s the thing–when you don’t have all the pieces, you’re doing more harm than good. If you don’t differentiate between mental health and mental illness you’re not helping. You’re contributing to the stigma we’re fighting so hard to end.

I have social and generalized anxiety and have since I was a kid. For me, there was no trauma or event that triggered it*; it just reared its ugly head at puberty. I’ve been being treated for 8 years and I will probably be on medication forever. I know not everyone wants to do that, and if they work with their doctor they may be able to find another form of treatment that works for them. But for me, medication and counselling have been my saving grace. I’m in a really good place right now. But does that mean my illness is gone? No. It just means I have a handle on it right now–through treatment.  

This Mental Health week, reflect on the difference between mental health and mental illness. Stop using the phrases interchangeably. If you’ve seen a video like the one I’ve described, remember what they are talking about is mental health, not mental illness. Take care of yourself. You don’t need to have a mental illness to prioritize your mental health. Life is hard for everyone. Self care may be an overused buzzword these days, but at its core it’s important and valid. Take some time to check in with yourself this week and figure out some ways you can improve your mental health. Remember that mental illness and mental health are not the same thing.  And be sensitive.

*This is not the case for everyone.

Want more? Check out these books about mental health and mental illness and these snarky do’s and don’ts of knowing someone with anxiety!