The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

Mental health, in simple terms, is a measure of our state of mind, just as physical health is a measure of our physical self. It can fluctuate day to day – or even hour by hour – and is influenced by many things in our lives, personal or professional.

Some people refer to it as ‘emotional health’ while others might call it ‘wellbeing’, but in very simple terms, it may be helpful to think of mental health as existing on a continuum. It can vary depending on lifestyle factors such as how much sleep we’re getting, how stressful work is, whether we’re exercising and what our diet is like.

It can also fluctuate whether or not you have a diagnosis of a mental illness.

When we’re at our happiest or most content, our arrow is on the right-hand side – however if events in our lives cause upset, distress or trauma, or if we don’t look after ourselves, our arrow may move further towards the middle of the chart – towards a mental health issue.

A mental health issue (or mental health problem) is where someone show signs that something isn’t right for them – they could be tearful, anxious or angry about certain things, or they may withdraw from situations.

The majority of people who experience mental health issues can recover (or learn to live with them), especially if they get help early on – in the diagram above, their arrow may return to the right.

How we bounce back from certain situations – sometimes referred to as mental resilience or mental strength – may differ from person to person. While some people might be able to handle the pressures life throws at them, others may struggle to do so, often for reasons beyond their control.

When a mental health issue begins to seriously take over a person’s life – impacting work, relationships, education, or social lives – it then may be considered to be a mental illness. It means a person cannot do what they would, should or could do with their life. On the diagram, the arrow moves to the left.

A mental illness affects your ability to function day to day. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and personality disorders are all considered mental illnesses.

Like any illness, it is likely that a person may need some kind of medical treatment to help manage the symptoms. This can include medication, but also talking therapies and education. While some people may recover fully, in other cases a mental illness will not go away and, with the right support, a person can learn to manage it for life.

The diagram above offers a simplistic view of an area in our lives which still isn’t fully understood – and is incredibly nuanced. There are, of course, factors which may influence mental illness which people can’t control, such as genetics and life circumstances. But the continuum is designed to show that mental illness and mental health are not the same – understanding the differences can help open up conversations about these topics and, in turn, reduce any stigma or shame.

World Mental Health Awareness Day is on Thursday 10th October 2019.

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