There has been a HUGE debate throughout the history of mental health and mental illness consisting of people wondering…is there even a difference between the two? The short answer is; Yes…there most definitely is.

In the above pictures, I have put two photos with a similar view. The picture with a blue sky represents mental health when the picture with a dark sky represents mental illness. The importance of this picture is to visibly show the difference between the two.

A hand is reaching out for help in each picture, the blue picture shows someone reaching for help towards a blue sky filled with clouds which represent pain, depression, and anxiety. Clouds surround us with darkness which can make us feel hopeless, but they are mandatory to help the earth grow. The dark picture is a little different, it’s taken at night where the darkness is perpetual. The hand in this picture will always be in darkness, but she can feel happy. She may be stuck in a dark light her entire life but she has the ability to manage the darkness through her stars.

When you think about ‘health’ what comes to mind? One of the first things that come to my mind is the old quote “eat an apple a day keeps the doctor away” which was a classic technique to get youngsters to eat fruit and vegetables. Often we are asked if we feel ‘healthy’ and what we do to contribute to our health. If you look at the overall definition of ‘health’ it states…”[health is] the state of being free from illness or injury.” So when we talk about mental health, is there a difference?

People have been caught up in the argument about how to talk about mental health vs. mental illness vs. mental disorder vs. mental disability vs. etc. etc. etc. But, let’s take it back to the basics. Mental health is the state of your mental wellbeing. By simply adding the word ‘mental’ we refer to your emotions, energy, productivity, and motivation, ‘health’ stays the same.

It’s possible to have “good mental health” and it’s possible to have “bad mental health” and if you have one of these two it doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental illness. Many people play the card of ignorance towards mental illness when they have poor mental health. Everyone has negative emotions and experiences, they get lethargic and lose their appetite, they experience fear and grieve. Every single person in the world will at one point in their life struggle with their mental health. But, if we stick to the presumption that mental health is the same as mental illness then we are all mentally ill which would then be scientifically written into the condition of humanity.

Talking about mental health is a good thing and needs to be continued throughout our society with high emphasis that’s it’s ok to talk about it and is essential to our daily lives.

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Percent of the mentally ill within the homeless population

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Percent of mental illness within the prison systems

We need to remember that an emotion is not a mental illness even if it is chronic, a mental illness is a disruption of functioning and motivation which results in the impairment of our daily lives. While a mental health issue is an unwanted emotion or situation, a mental illness is intrusive emotions, thoughts, actions, and fears that don’t fit the situation. A mental illness is an imbalance of chemicals within the brain and body which sends improper messages to the brain resulting in emotional and mental dysfunction. Mental illness is usually something we are born with and is highly genetic, but a mental illness can also be developed through trauma. 

Poor mental health can lead to the development of a mental illness but some people are predisposed to the genetic component at birth. I used to compare mental illness to a time-bomb because those of us who are predisposed have this gene in us forever but mental illness usually waits for a specific age, time of your life, or is triggered therefore some mental illnesses are not seen until an average in the mid-twenties. There are several types of mental illness and dozens of treatment options, but the most dangerous thing about a mental illness is the way the sufferer goes about dealing with it.

Those who have the chemical component of a mental illness are given improper signals from the body on a regular basis which usually leads to over-compensation which can become self-destructive. Alcohol, gambling, drugs, self-harm such as cutting or bruising, eating disorders, etc. are all co-occupant disorders of a mental illness and are formed by how we choose to cope with our illness. For this reason alone, we need to put importance on the mental health of our students, employees, family, friends, etc. Bad coping behaviours lead to self-destructive habits, be it isolation, avoidance, or shutting down. When someone who is mentally ill learns how to properly cope with their illness, they are much more likely to be able to live a normal, productive life. We need to create a bigger understanding of the word ‘cope’ and educate why it’s essential to every single person on earth…not just those with mental illness!

When I say that mentally ill people can live a normal and productive life I don’t mean that they are happy all the time, they will likely be on medication, have highs and lows, need ongoing treatment which can be intensive, and have setbacks. The road to recovery is not linear and we need a basic understanding being taught from a young age on how to cope in healthy ways.

Mental illness is a biological, chemical, emotional, mental disorder that causes the immense disruption of a person’s life due to signals to the brain being enhanced or not sent at all. Mental illness is treatable but not all people will fully recover, all co-occupant disorders are 100% curable, people with a mental illness will need ongoing treatment for the rest of their lives be it through medication, therapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), groups, or appointments. Mental illness causes an immense strain on a persons ability to do certain things and it has nothing to do with the strength that person has. You may know someone with a mental illness do please take the time to become educated before tossing around accusations, assumptions, or annoyance.

“Health and illness are not the same, so mental health and mental illness logically are not the same either. Mental health, I see as an all-encompassing term to discuss any mental state. Mental illness refers to the specific disorders/illnesses that our mental states can have.”

Laura Barton

I have been doing research for several years behind the philosophy of empathy and what makes us feel the way we do. To no fail, I have noticed that it is within the human condition that if we don’t experience something first-hand, it is extremely hard for us to relate. This explains the common ignorance between mental health and mental illness, it also explains why some people believe in self-diagnosing. If someone has never experienced the effects of a mental illness, especially if they have only lived with mentally healthy individuals when a negative emotion starts to develop they immediately relate to a mental illness.

Mental illness is a disorder that can be detrimental to a persons wellbeing with outcomes such as homelessness, incarceration, losing or never getting a job or schooling, lack of positive interpersonal relationships resulting in abuse, manipulation, isolation, and death. If someone has a mental illness and is not properly managing themselves resulting in the comfort of negative coping strategies they can find themselves with several short and long-term side effects of self-destruction even if it is not intentional. These can include loss of brain cells, osteoporosis, fainting spells, memory and concentration problems, malnutrition, weakness, loss of the senses such as vision or hearing, an irregular heartbeat and/or heart-attacks, speech impediments, retardation, loss of mobility skills, a higher risk of developing cancer, loss of limbs and feeling within certain body parts, accidental overdose, accidental death, etc.

My point in telling you all of these intense side effects is to share with you how serious mental illness really is. Being mentally ill doesn’t mean we went several years feeling depressed due to a divorce, that would be situational depression. Mental illness is feeling depressed to the point of hopelessness resulting in isolation, lack of education, loss of work, malnutrition and loss of basic hygiene. Mental illness is not leaving your house due to crippling anxiety.

Personally, I have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which was created genetically and then enhanced with trauma and negative coping skills. I often hear people who use mental illnesses as adjectives which really bugs me considering I’ve met hundreds of people suffering from all types of disorders. This is where confusion often comes in towards mental health vs. mental illness.

If someone is skinny, it doesn’t mean they are suffering from anorexia
If someone is a perfectionist, it doesn’t mean they suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder 
If something has high fluctuations, it doesn’t mean it’s bipolar
If someone is feeling sad, it doesn’t mean they’re depressed 
If someone smoked a joint, it doesn’t mean they’re an addict
If someone has an embarrassing story about their past, it doesn’t mean they have PTSD

My biggest worry about the mental illness vs. mental health debate in the advocacy world is the misconception and ignorance that can be tossed around social media. I’m afraid that those who see these serious disorders being misconceived as “mental health” is not just irresponsible but dangerous. As I said before, we need to be teaching children how to cope, and we need to educate all people about mental illness and always be open to questions regarding the topic but we must first take the time to become educated.

If I said that someone with diabetes was overreacting because they didn’t get their insulin, would you question me? If so, then why wouldn’t you question me if I said the same thing to someone who was having an anxiety attack? We need to keep making these connections within the medical community, sadly people are often pushed aside by police, hospitals, and medical care because of the nature of their illness. Where an illness develops in the body should not get to determine how worthy you are of treatment. No matter if someone is suffering from a mental illness or a mental health problem, please, take the time to smile at someone on the street, ask how someone’s day is going sincerely, hold an elevator, do something out of the kindness of your heart to reach out to your community and let them know, it’s going to be ok.

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