The difference between mental health and mental illness

Mental health and mental illness are not the same thing. It’s vital employers and their employees know the key differences in order to understand and help individuals suffering from low mental health or a mental illness.

Everyone has mental health. And, just like physical health, sometimes we’ll feel a little under the weather. But not everyone will experience mental illness.

Mental health refers to our emotional and psychological wellbeing. It is influenced by our life experiences. This can impact the way we think, feel and behave.

Mental illness encompasses a wide range of disorders often caused by genes or brain chemistry. This includes mood disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders and much more. Each mental illness has different symptoms and can impact an individual’s life differently. Mental illnesses are recognisable conditions that can be professionally diagnosed and treated.

The main difference is that mental health fluctuates and is dependent on an individual’s life experience. Mental illness won’t be caused or cured by factors going on in someone’s life (though they can of course be exacerbated by these factors).

Are mental health and mental illness interchangeable?

Mental health and mental illness are two separate things and should be treated as such.

An individual may have low mental health, but no signs of mental illness. For example, someone may be going through a difficult break-up and struggling with their job. This could lead to feelings of low mental health – but this doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to suffer from mental illness.

Similarly, someone may have a diagnosed mental illness such as bipolar or OCD but is able to manage this effectively and lead a healthy and satisfying life. In this scenario, the individual may have a mental illness but good mental health.

While low mental health can sometimes be overcome through practising self-care techniques and mindfulness, mental illness can not. Mental illnesses are caused by biological factors and chemicals in the brain and these can’t be changed merely by willpower. That’s not to say mindfulness and other wellbeing practises can’t be helpful and aid recovery though. Mental illnesses can also be treated through medication and talking therapies amongst other things.

Lack of medical diagnosis should in no way undermine the devastating impact of low mental health. An individual should never be told to ‘get over it’ or be pushed to ‘cheer up’ if they’re suffering from mental health problems. They should be guided to set their own pace and find the right coping mechanisms to suit them.

What is mental ill health?

Mental ill health is a broader term that encompasses all aspects of low mental health or mental illness.

Understanding key terms and their definitions can be difficult. People use various terms to describe their experiences: mental ill health, mental wellbeing, mental health, mental health problems, mental health conditions and many more.

Because so many of these terms are used interchangeably, people are nervous of getting terms wrong and causing offence. We can’t stress enough how important it is to communicate and talk openly about these definitions. This is particularly relevant in a workplace setting. An employee may discuss a mental health problem, and actually they are suffering from work-related stress or burn-out. The support they need could differ totally from a member of staff who is exhibiting signs of OCD or panic disorders.

Low mental health can lead to mental illness

Consistently low levels of mental health can lead to illnesses such as anxiety and depression. This is because low mental health has eventually got to a point where it affects an individual’s ability to function and enjoy day-to-day experiences. These mental illnesses can be more difficult and complex to address.

Therefore, it’s important to start taking mental wellbeing seriously in order to improve and maintain good mental health. Using self-care techniques to look after your mental health can prevent mental illnesses from developing.

Both mental health and mental illness can be stigmatised

People are tentative when discussing ‘mental health’ because others often take this to mean ‘mental illness’. But, even if this is the case, why should mental illness automatically have negative connotations?

Mental health and mental illness are often associated with negative stereotypes. Sometimes individuals with certain conditions are portrayed as dangerous, criminal or unable to lead normal and fulfilling lives. These negative stereotypes lead to many people with a problem feeling unable to seek the help they need. Even small examples of stigma, such as the everyday use of words such as ‘crazy’ leads to negative connotations.

As a society, we must overcome these stigmas and educate ourselves. Understanding mental health and different mental illnesses is the first step to being able to help our friends, colleagues and members of the community.

Normalising conversations around both mental health and mental illness can help people feel comfortable discussing their own experiences. The more people understand and open up, the more we will de-stigmatise these terms.

Looking after both mental health and mental illness

Keeping a good level of mental health, and knowing how to identify and treat mental illness, is the key to ensuring overall wellbeing.

Causes of low mental health can be lifestyle changes. But, like mental illness, sometimes there can be no tangible, recognisable trigger or “cause”. Simply feeling down or unmotivated some days, or suffering from low emotional resilience, can cause bouts of ill mental health. The key is to recognise signs of low mental wellbeing and find ways to recover.

Good mental health allows us to enjoy our lives. It gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. However, just as with physical health, sometimes we need to rest and recover if we’re feeling unwell. Encouraging a workplace culture that embraces these conversations and gives employees the empowerment to look after their own mental health can make a big difference to your employees.

As an employer, it’s important to address both mental health and mental illness separately but with equal importance. Signposting employees to be able to get the help they need is particularly important. Mind.org.uk and mentalhealth.org.uk are great starting points for people looking for further help and advice.

The most important thing is to cultivate a positive, accepting workplace culture. Your employees should feel supported and able to open up about any problems.

We Are Wellbeing can help to improve your workplace culture and create an open, positive environment. This will empower your employees to seek the help and support they need, allowing them to thrive both personally and professionally. We offer management training, wellbeing seminars (including sessions on mental health and mental illness) and mental health awareness workshops for all employees. Start incorporating mental health discussions into your day-to-day workplace culture today.

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