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Mental Health VS. Mental Illness: What's The Difference (And Does It Matter?)

Mental Health VS. Mental Illness: What's The Difference (And Does It Matter?)
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Lately, mental health has become a popular and trendy topic of conversation. For the most part, this is great. The more we talk about our mental health, the more we can recognize when ours needs a little TLC. The more popular mental health is, the more resources become available to support it. However, as conversations on mental health increase, more and more people have begun to refer to mental health and mental illness interchangeably. And the problem is, these are two connected but very different things. 

Mental health is referring to our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also plays a role in determining how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood, and it is something we all have. 

Mental illness is an umbrella term referring to a wide range of disorders that affect a person's mood, thinking, and behaviour. Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnicity. It is not something someone can 'just get over' or wish away with willpower. It is impacted by biological factors and/or brain chemistry, trauma and abuse, and genetics. One in five people will experience a form of mental illness in a year, and they often experience stigma and discrimination as a result of that illness.

A person opening a journal with a tea cup and kettle nearby

How do they relate?

Psychologist Dr. Sherry Benton proposed an excellent model outlining the relationship between mental health and mental illness for Psychology Today in 2018. Through it, Dr. Benton recognizes how addressing both mental health and mental illness are important, and that if you ignore mental health issues long enough you may develop a mental illness.  It also addresses how a person can have no mental health but still have no level of mental illness. Or, on the flip side, how one may have a chronic mental illness and a high level of mental health. Take a look at Dr. Benton's model below. 

Source: Dr. Benton

Why this matters

Recognizing the difference between mental health and mental illness is critical to understanding changes in our own health and recognizing how to care for or treat times when our mental health may be low or our mental illness may be high. This distinction can help manage mental illness symptoms and keep our mental health in shape. 

It's also important for those who haven't experienced mental illness to recognize this difference. By separating mental illness from mental health, it's easier to understand why a person living with mental illness is unable to 'just snap out of it' or may appear to be completely fine and 'always happy'. Everyone can understand mental health because it's something we all have. But not everyone can understand or relate to what it's like to experience mental illness. Acknowledging that is a big step towards reducing the misconceptions many people still have regarding mental illness. 

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