Mental Health vs Mental Illness

post by Si Martin

July, 18 2022


Mental health vs mental illness. What’s the difference? 
I feel like these two terms can end up being interchanged quite a bit. So I wanted to take a minute to clarify what I mean when I talk about mental health vs mental illness. 

In its most basic form: mental health is almost more of a noun. It’s naming something that we all have

And mental illness is a state that we can fall into, when our mental health isn’t in its best possible shape. 

Physical Health vs Mental Health

Perhaps it’s helpful to  go to that age old classic of comparing our mental health to our physical health. 

When we talk about physical health, it’s often quite a broad term. And we rarely even say “physical” – we just use “health”. 

Physical health is this all encompassing way of saying everything in our body is working “as it should”; our bodies are working for us, rather than against us. 

We might think of health as something that we actively work to maintain; we make “healthy choices”.

Maybe that’s being mindful of the food & drink that we consume to make sure we’re getting the nutrients that we need to keep our bodies going. Or exercising in order to grow & develop our bodies/our muscles, and help fight off illness. 

Which leads me onto physical illness. 

We tend to think of physical illness as just something that happens to us. You come down with a cold, that’s unlucky. You break your arm? That’s a bummer. But it doesn’t make you who you are

In the physical context, we use illness to refer to a huge range of things.

But in, arguably, the majority of cases, we view illness as something that you can recover from.

Of course, there are chronic illnesses as well, but if you meet someone with a chronic illness, you don’t think it’s their fault. 

So now let’s put those ideas into a mental health context.

Staying mentally healthy

Our mental health is also something that we need to actively work to maintain. 

I mentioned having the right nutrients to keep our bodies going. It’s super important to be feeding your body right. But it’s just as important to be feeding your mind right. 

Thinking about what we consume – the stuff we watch, the things we look at, the people we listen to – it all plays a part in keeping our minds working “as they should”: working for us, not against us.

And in the same way that we can exercise our bodies to keep them physically healthy, we can exercise our minds to keep us mentally healthy too. 

Meditation isn’t just about sitting cross legged and going “ohhmmmm” (but it can be!)

Completing small challenges; stuff like doing puzzles, or concentrating super hard for a short burst of time makes your brain better able to deal with big challenges when they come up. 

There are healthy choices we can make, like switching off and taking some time to get some proper rest. Which gives your brain time to detangle & sort itself out.

Meditation is another thing that you can practise to help keep your mind healthy. Focussing on your breath can help calm your whole nervous system down. And practicing it while you’re feeling mentally healthy & well will mean that you can call on that skill when you’re feeling mentally unwell

Mental illness

Which brings us then to mental illness. 

And in the same way as with physical illness, mental illness can refer to a real broad spectrum of things. 

Some of which you can recover from. Some of which you can learn to manage. 

But mental illness doesn’t define you. It’s something that you have, not something that you are.

So if there’s one thing you take away from this, it should be the fact that you’re so much more than whatever your mental health’s looking like at this moment in time. 

Whether you’re dealing with a bout of depression or a panic attack, or something like Bipolar Disorder or OCD, there are things you can do to help manage the symptoms. There are places you can get support and advice from. And it’s not your fault. 

Final thoughts

And just to wrap up with something that’s become a bit of a cliche in the mental health world: you’re not alone. It’s a cliche because it’s true. Around 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness in their lives. 

So if you find yourself in a place where you’re feeling your mental health declining, remember:

  • You’re more than your mental illness. It’s something you have not something you are.
  • Practise techniques to help you manage the symptoms. Especially if you get used to using them while you’re feeling mentally healthy.
  • It’s ok to ask for help. If you felt physically ill, you’d go to the doctors for help. So if you feel mentally ill, get yourself some help.

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