The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

I talk about mental health a lot, I write about it a lot and I read about it a lot. It’s a big part of my life (if you haven’t guessed that already). When you’re learning about a new aspect of yourself, you want to learn as much as possible about that aspect so you can understand how to deal with it. In doing all of that, early on I learned about a few common misconceptions about mental health, and anxiety and depression in particular.

I’m hoping to build on these in the coming weeks, but the first misconception I wanted to focus on was the term ‘mental health’ and how it’s used outside the mental health community. A common misunderstanding is that mental health and mental illness can be used interchangeably. If you think that sounds dumb, I agree with you! But I also know misinformation spreads easily, making it necessary to define the clear difference.

Mental Health vs Mental Illness

Write this down, friends: mental health is our emotional, mental and social well-being and it’s an important part of being a human. Everyone deals with mental health in their life in some way, shape or form. Reaching (and maintaining) positive mental health is harder for some than others. If it’s more difficult, that could signify mental health problems – one of which is a possibility of mental illness. But mental health and mental illness are NOT the same thing. See the connection?

I think part of this misunderstanding is that people aren’t used to discussing mental health in a positive context. If someone’s talking about their mental health, more often than not, it’s because they’re experiencing issues. Did I talk about my mental health before it began to deteriorate? Absolutely not! I never thought to. But after personal experience and plenty of research, I realized that what I thought was a base level of mental health was actually positive mental health that I never appreciated.

ANYONE Can Talk About Mental Health

As I wrote in Tuesday’s post, mental health can have its ups and downs, ebbs and flows. Everyone will have these, regardless if you deal with a mental illness or mental health disorder. Dealing with those other challenges just means that those ups and downs are different. But it also means that people who tend to have more positive mental health don’t always feel comfortable talking about the topic. I would know since I talk to those people a lot.

But you know what I tell them? I want to hear from you. I want to know and understand your experience with mental health because it’s just as valid as mine. Maybe you don’t live with a mental health disorder, so you don’t walk to talk about mental health. But if you know it’s not the same thing, then we can discuss your mental health without getting into the mental illness of it all. That’s okay too! Understanding just how prevalent mental health is in our lives is a big first step in self-improvement, and the sooner people realize that the sooner they can work on wellness and working toward positive mental health.

Jimmy Dean


7 thoughts on “The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

  1. ashleyleia February 27, 2020 / 11:15 am

    What I find weird is that I see this mix-up happening most often from people who do have a mental illness, and saying things like “I have mental health” when they’re clearly referring to their illness. It’s not a difficult concept, so I’m really not sure why the lack of clarity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan Smith February 27, 2020 / 4:43 pm

      That’s so true, I know plenty of people who talk like that! Then, when we talk about the differences it becomes as clear as day to them. Makes me wonder where that originates.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. dcmori March 1, 2020 / 11:09 pm

    Your writing is clear and thoughtful, on a sensitive, personal subject that affects every human. I hope you are posting your essays elsewhere because I’m not sure WP readers are your best audience. About mental health and mental illnesses, I find it so interesting that discoveries are increasingly being made about physical causes for mental disturbances. The field of endocrinology now helps explain why hormonal imbalances cause depression and anxiety. This, in turn, means that a certain genetic tendency can be largely responsible for a weaker state of mental health. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault that they have depression! Combining meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and exercise with the lowest dose possible of medication is today’s best solution to reaching optimum mental health, whenever possible.


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