Mental Health and Mental Illness are not the same

It is World Mental Health Day and yes, I am so glad that we are ending the stigma associated with having a mental health problem, it is much needed and long overdue. However, I will say there needs to be a clear distinction. Mental health is not the same as mental illness. It’s not. So often we use these words interchangeably but in actuality the distinction between health and illness is a big deal. So as you read on let me help shed some light on the difference. 

Just like we all have heart health, we all have mental health. How we manage our emotions, thoughts, behavior, perception of the world, relationships, and problems is called our wellbeing which makes up our mental health. To promote heart health we do things like exercise and monitor our blood pressure to minimize the risk of disease and heart attacks. To promote mental health we do things like exercise and monitor our wellbeing to minimize the risk of disease and possible suicide attempts. 

A mental illness is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” A mental illness permeates a person’s life and creates such a noticeable impact that a person seeks out support. What’s unfortunate is that for someone to get help for their heart is seen as normal and free of shame whereas to get help because someone might have thoughts of suicide is seen as morally wrong and shameful. 

This is where we need to continue working together to change the perception that mental health and mental illness are associated with someone’s moral character. They’re not. The same as someone’s moral character does not determine the likelihood they will have a heart attack. 

Like other umbrellas of health, mental health also falls on a spectrum. For heart health, you see elite athletes breaking world records to someone who has a heart that barely works and is waiting for a transplant. For mental health it can range from a very high functioning mentally healthy person to a person who is hospitalized due to their brain causing significant impairment to their safety and the safety of others. The trouble is that mental illness can oftentimes be invisible. When we see someone who seems to “have it all” and everyone who knows them is shocked and “never knew” they struggled with thoughts of suicide until they died from it. 

Mental illness is a disease of the brain just like high blood pressure is a disease of the heart. And because the brain is the new frontier in medicine we still have a lot to learn. What we do know is that when someone can be completely honest about their wellbeing without judgment they are more likely to get the support they need. 

Now that we know that we all have mental health just like we all have heart health let’s promote it. And now that we know that those with a mental illness are just like anyone else with a medical diagnosis, let’s be supportive of them too. Because, honestly, we are all trying to get through this thing called life. We don’t get to choose how our physical body is going to work but we do get to choose how we are going to use it; let’s use it for good. 

Cheering for you,


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