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What's the Difference Between Mental Health & Mental Illness?

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The terms ‘mental health’ and  ‘mental illness’ have garnered significant attention in recent years, leading to an increased awareness, advocacy and the implementation of support systems in the workplace.

Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness, however, is crucial to fostering a comprehensive approach to mental wellbeing for individuals and organisations. In this blog, we explore mental health and mental illness in-depth, with an aim to provide more clarity around these once taboo subjects.

Understanding the Terms: What is Mental Health?

According to the World’s Health Organisation (WHO), mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is a basic and crucial human right that everyone must prioritize. It not only includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being, but it also determines how we think, feel and act. Additionally, it encompasses resilience, stress management, self-care and healthy relationships, all of which  contribute to our ability to enjoy life.

Moreover, mental health is intertwined with physical health. For  author and mentalist Amit Kalantri, ‘‘a healthy body owns a healthy mind’’. Just like how what we eat and the activities we do have an impact when taking care of our bodies, what we think, say, or receive can affect our minds and disturb our mental health maintenance. In fact, when individuals are mentally healthy, they are more likely to cope positively with the stresses of life, maintain and grow fulfilling relationship and feel a sense of purpose.

Additionally, as our brains are connected to our bodies, mental health conditions can affect physical health and vice versa. For instance, stress or anxiety can cause several physical disturbances such as:

  • Inflammations
  • Skin rashes or eczema
  • Weaken the immune system
  • Rapid weight gain or loss
  • Headaches and nausea

With our busy lives in a rapidly changing world, it may be challenging to maintain a healthy lifestyle. As people become more informed, through the growing recognition of the importance of mental health and overall well-being, they’re more likely to prioritize mental health in their lives and within their communities.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness or mental disorders, on the other hand, represent conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking and behaviour which are characterized by specific symptoms. Often associated with problems and stress that individuals encounter in their daily social, work, and family activities. According to WHO, 1 in every 8 people in the world live with a mental disorder and most individuals do not have access to efficient care. Furthermore, there are more than 200 types of mental health illnesses or disorders, including:

  • Anxiety disorders (e.g. generalized anxiety and social anxiety)
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders
  • Eating disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
  • Substance use disorders, including drug addiction and alcohol use disorder

It is important for individuals, organisations, and governmental entities to spread awareness and knowledge to reduce stigma and discrimination as well as break down misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding mental illness. This will foster a more accepting and supportive society in the long run. Additionally, building understanding and awareness towards these conditions will promote the recognition of symptoms and early interventions in hopes that people can seek help sooner. Moreover, it encourages workplaces, school, academies, and society to provide support and resources such as:

This will empower individuals to take control of their mental health and seek the support when needed.

Distinguishing Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

1. Standard Mental Health vs Pathological Mental Illness

Mental health is not necessarily about feeling “normal” or managing a mental illness, it’s more of a continuum of one’s wellbeing. Similarly to how we can feel energised and content one moment and then perhaps more tired or stressed the next, mental health can change and fluctuate over time as well.

However, when someone’s mental health is negatively affected, it can significantly disrupt the individuals’ ability to function as they normally would in their daily life. If negative feelings persist for a long time, they become overwhelming and create a barrier to enjoy life and engage in regular activities. In the long term, it is a sign of a mental illness. For instance, it’s normal for a person to feel overwhelmed or experience stress due to an increase of workload during important events, however, if they feel drained all the time without any apparent change or reason, even when good things happen, like getting a promotion, it may be a sign that they are experiencing burnout, depression, or anxiety.

2. Preventive Measures vs Managing Mental Disorders

Being cautious and taking steps to maintain good mental health is crucial. Just like we prevent physical illness by exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep, we need to take proactive measures to maintain our mental health, such as:

  • Practicing mindfulness and gratitude
  • Engaging in hobbies we enjoy
  • Spending time with loved ones, and
  • Seeking support when needed

These actions help build resilience and coping skills, making us better equipped to handle life’s challenges and changes efficiently.

However, if someone is mentally ill and struggling, it is fundamental to provide them with targeted and professional interventions to help them get better. In most cases this could involve therapy, medication, support groups, counselling or other forms of treatments that are tailored specifically to your needs.

3. Individual vs and Societal Impact

It is important to understand that mental health does not only concern individuals, rather, but it contributes to society. When people are mentally healthy, they are usually more productive, engaged, satisfied, happy and able to contribute more effectively to their community, at work and with family and friends.  

However, people with mental illness can be left untreated or unsupported, which often leads to misunderstanding, misalignment with other individuals and other potentially negative consequences.

For example, a manager who recognizes that their employee functions differently from others but  fails to make adjustments to help support this employee, can ultimately limit the employee’s capabilities, achievements, creativity, and innovation. It can also lead to unfair dismissal.

Similarly, when society fails to recognize mental illness and attempt to support those with it, it can strain relationships, lead to homelessness, and place burden on healthcare systems and social services. That’s why it’s crucial to invest in mental health initiatives and early intervention, to improve the lives of people but also strengthen communities and societies.

Stigma and Discrimination

No matter how much we speak about mental health, stigma and discrimination are still heavily present when it comes to mental illness. Many people hold misconceptions or negative and false beliefs about mental illness. For example, people often think if someone is mentally ill that they can’t function properly and therefore cannot be trusted with certain responsibilities and tasks. This is why individuals are afraid to speak up as they are afraid of being feared, judged, and discriminated against by others.

The stigma behind mental illness and mental health can prevent people from seeking help, leading them to isolation, feeling shameful and even worthless. As a result, this aggravates their conditions and often makes them worse.

Consequently, understanding that mental health is a universal concern is the only way to effectively make progress where individuals, organizations and society are concerned. Spreading awareness and support is key to challenging stereotypes and for creating a more inclusive society that prioritizes mental wellbeing.


Mental Health and Mental Illness: Distinct Yet Interconnected

While mental health encompasses the overall spectrum of emotional and psychological well-being, mental illness and disorders refer to diagnosable conditions that disrupt individuals functioning. Learning about the differences between the two is crucial to understand how they remain connected and how we can manage them together.

Help your organization promote well-being by enrolling on a professional CIPD HR course with Acacia Learning today.