Mental Health vs Mental Illness: What’s the Difference?

As awareness and general knowledge surrounding mental health and mental illness grows, it’s important to be able to understand the differences between what we call ‘mental health’ and what we call ‘mental illness’. Sometimes, people can unknowingly use the two terms interchangeably, or understand them to mean the same thing, when this isn’t the case.

I think that in order for us to have meaningful conversations surrounding mental health, and be able to support those struggling with mental illness, we need to be sure that we are all 'speaking the same language' and communicating clearly. 

What is mental health?

When we are talking about mental health, we’re talking about a person’s overall state of psychological wellbeing. It’s a huge space (in the same way that physical health is!) that encompasses our emotional wellbeing, how well we cope with challenges, our ability to handle stress, our behaviours, thoughts and emotions. 

Our mental health is something that can be affected by many factors. While we do have some level of influence over how some things can affect us - such as diet, exercise and sleep - some are outside of our control - such as stressful life events, or brain chemistry.

What about mental illness?

When we talk about mental illness, we are referring to a diagnosable condition that causes symptoms that affect the persons thoughts, feelings, behaviours and ability to function. Mental illnesses are complex, so while we don't have all the answers, we are starting to understand more about the different risk factors and triggers that can result in mental illness. 

Each persons experience of mental illness is unique, and can manifest in many ways. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can present over short or long periods of time. Over our lifetimes, we're likely to know someone who has a mental illness - or we might experience it ourselves - so it's paramount that we learn to recognise when people might be struggling, so they can access adequate care or support.

It’s important to note: being diagnosed with mental illness, or receiving treatment for mental illness is absolutely not a personal failure.

When does low mental health become mental illness?

When we're feeling low, or stressed, it's common for people to feel that we can, or should,' just get on with it'. However, if your symptoms are causing you prolonged distress or you’re having problems functioning with your job, daily demands, relationships etc - you should consider reaching out for support.

While we can take some steps towards better mental health, and make choices in our everyday lives that reflect that (in the same way that we can with our physical health), mental illnesses are medical conditions and should really be treated or managed with the help of a health professional.

If you think you might need to reach out for some help or support surrounding mental illness, or if you're worried about someone, please check out these New Zealand resources put together by the Mental Health Foundation:

Support For Myself

Supporting Others


Back to blog

Leave a comment