Mental Health and Mental Illness: Is there a Difference?

Joel Roberts
October, 23, 2019 -

I was catching up with a friend one day, and as we talked he explained how things were pretty rough for him at the moment. At some point, he made the observation that he didn’t know how to approach some of his internal struggles because he didn’t know how to define what were mental health issues and what was related to mental illness. Basically, he was confused about how to talk about mental health because he didn’t know where mental illness fit in.

In thinking more about this, I recognize that there seems to be a general societal confusion about mental health. That is, the negative connotations associated with the term make it hard for us to bring it into everyday conversation.

In the late 1960s through the 1970s there was a boom in fitness culture. The research into the benefits of physical activity had drawn out the differences between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and there was a shift in thinking about fitness as a matter of public health to the more modern idea of self-improvement. The idea that physical wellbeing helps you achieve healthiness and happiness led to the rapid commercialization of the fitness industry. With more money available to the fitness industry as a whole, we have seen massive growth in fitness-related technology (smart scales, heart rate monitors, pedometers, etc) and applied science (individualized workout routines, food science, analytics, AI, etc.). By monetizing the idea that personal wellbeing mattered to people, the physical fitness industry was able to rapidly advance our understanding of physical health to the point that we all benefit from the amount of information that is available to us.

The idea of “being healthy” is pretty positive across our American culture yet there is still such stigma around the idea of mental health. As a society, we have a poor relationship with terms like mental health and mental illness. I think that we can break down some of this stigma by seeking to understand the topic with a focus on the precision of language.

Mental Health

One constant in all of our lives is that we are alone in our own thoughts most of the time. Our inner monologue, which houses our thoughts and feelings, is constantly with us as we work to process the world around us. It’s what shapes our conversations, our ability to solve problems, and generally controls our ability to interact with reality. One way of describing this sense of self is “Mental Health,” and it is comprised of many things including our emotions, thoughts and feelings. 

Being mentally healthy means that: 

     1. We are aware of all those things inside of us

     2. We are able to recognize our own ability to interact with the world and live our lives. That is, that we have the ability to cope with stress, be productive in our job/home life, have healthy social interactions, and contribute to society as a whole.

One of the important things to understand about being “mentally healthy” is that we still have access to a full range of emotions and feelings. Healthy living does not mean suppressing our anger or sadness. Rather, it means that we understand that these emotions will likely affect our interactions and we should adjust accordingly.

Mental Illness

Mental Illness is a diagnosable disorder. This is probably an oversimplification of mental illness, but one way to understand it is that it distorts our ability to understand the world around us and our relationship within it. This could be anything from regulating our emotions to impeding our ability to think clearly. One of the keys to understanding mental illness is that, like any other illness, it is a condition not a choice, and it is treatable as a condition.

So what is the relationship between mental health and mental illness? In the same way physical health helps define our wellbeing, so does mental health. Mental illness is just a piece of that puzzle. You can have a mental illness, but be mentally healthy. You can also not have a diagnosable mental illness and not be mentally healthy. Mental health should be our goal, and the steps we take to get there and remain there are going to be different. It may involve working with a doctor or therapist, or it may be simply understanding that when we lack sleep, or are angry or even hungry, our ability to make sound decisions may be impacted.

I want to go back to the idea of physical health and the fitness boom. The idea of physical health does not just date back to the mid-1900s. Physical health is an idea that society has always understood as being a good thing. Mental health is also not a new idea, but like physical health before its commercialization, it is not something society has put a lot of money and research into. We need to push to understand this part of our overall wellbeing. In an age where big companies like Google and Facebook have the ability to know more about us than we know about ourselves, it’s becoming a necessity for us to understand things like mental health and how it affects our decision making. What kind of things affect our judgment and decision making? How do we recognize when we are in a bad place mentally and need to take a step back to refocus?

I encourage everyone to take the idea of mental health personally and seriously. Seek to understand yourself better and approach the idea of mental wellbeing in the same way we are encouraged to see physical health, as a net positive. Right now, we are seeing a rise of internet support groups and telehealth portals. There are phone apps devoted to coping with depression, or learning mindfulness and meditation. Public interest in mental health is on the rise, and if we continue to seek better understanding of it, we will see more money and research being devoted to this area of our health. Hopefully, this will lead to a society that no longer sees the stigma in talking about mental health, but sees it as a benefit of a holistically healthy life.