Mental Health vs Mental Illness: There is a Difference

Image for post
Image for post

I have a couple of goals in life. The first one is to help as many people as possible who are struggling with their mental health. That seems like a pretty ambitious goal, but my second one is much harder. This second goal of mine is to change the way that we talk about mental health as a culture, and I believe that one of the first steps in accomplishing this goal is to start differentiating between mental health and mental illness.

People use mental health and mental illness interchangeably, and not only does this increase the stigma, but it also makes the topic extremely sensitive. One of the best ways to start thinking about this is to look at the differences between the way we discuss physical health and physical illness because that’s a good starting point. There are a lot of nuances that go into the difference between mental and physical health, but for the purpose of our discussion, this helps us ease into the conversation.

What is Mental Illness?

Much like physical illness, mental illness needs to be treated. Depending on the illness, there are a variety of ways that a mental illness can begin. These are various disorders that can be based on your biology (genetic factors), psychology (ways you think) as well as social influences (your environment). This is why the best mental health professionals out there use the Biopsychosocial model to treat mental illness.

With physical illness, you’re in a similar boat. There are a wide range of physical illnesses that can be a result of your genetic disposition. This is why when you go to the doctor for the first time, they ask about a family history of various illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease etc. This doesn’t mean you’ll get the illness, but it means you’re at risk, so the doctor knows what to look out for. For various mental illnesses, there is a genetic component. Illnesses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more can be passed down through generations. They’ve even found that trauma can be passed down genetically.

Some illnesses are lifelong battles that you’ll have to fight, and as with a physical illness, we get to make the choice to fight the illness. We do this through psychiatric medications from a psychiatrist or primary care doctor, and this helps regulate various neurotransmitters and systems in our brains. Fortunately, we don’t have to completely depend on medication either because, with mental illness, there are therapies that can help reduce our symptoms as well such as evidence-based methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

What is Mental Health?

Why do people go to exercise and eat right? Why do people decide not to smoke? For most people, this isn’t because they have a physical illness that they’re battling. They do it to stay healthy. Why do they want to stay healthy? Not only do they feel better, but it also reduces the risk of developing a physical illness. While there’s no guarantee that staying away from cigarettes will prevent lung cancer, your chances of getting lung cancer are much lower than if you were a smoker.

This is also why at every public school, health class is a requirement. They don’t make you take a class on cancer, a different class for heart disease and a different class for herpes. They have a general health class that you’re required to take so you’re at least educated on how smoking can lead to cancer, a bad diet and lack of exercise can lead to heart disease and not having safe sex can lead to sexually transmitted diseases. It’s all preventative. Not only that, but you’re also required to take physical education, and this is another way to help you stay physically healthy.

So, when we talk about mental health, this is what we’re talking about. Rather than preventing obesity, we’re talking about preventing depression. Instead of talking about safe sex, we discuss healthy coping skills to regulate your emotions, which can prevent developing a mental illness. Focusing on your physical health means being proactive with the choices you make, and you can do the same thing with your mental health.

Mental Health is a Touchy Subject

Now that we know a bit about the differences between mental health and mental illness, one of the main reasons we need to differentiate the two is because it’s such a touchy subject. I’m no stranger to this either. Because of my mission to change the way we talk about mental health and due to the fact that people use mental health and mental illness interchangeably, it’s got me in some hot water.

Mental illness is an extremely touchy subject, and it should be. It should be a topic handled with care in the same way we approach topics like cancer with caution and empathy. But, you see hundreds of examples on a daily basis of how we talk about physical health in much more casual ways. Nobody freaks out when you say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” We shouldn’t freak out when we discuss the benefits of therapy, meditation and other preventative methods to keep our mental health in order.

As I write this, it’s been a few weeks since John Legend was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2019, and there were many other men who were celebrated for their amazing sexiness. I remember growing up, and people made a big deal about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (do they still do this?). Today, it’s similar. Instagram is a regular celebration of the most beautiful people in the world.

Why do I bring this up? Last year, it became extremely apparent to me that people treat mental health much different than mental health. Around the end of 2018, I asked if we should do a “Most Mentally Healthy People of 2018”, and people lost their shit.

“That’s a touchy subject!” “I can’t even believe you’d suggest that!”

And I’m sitting over here confused as hell like when you yell at a dog for chewing up the sofa and has no idea what she did wrong.

Now, all of these celebrations of physical health would be much more controversial if they were framed in a different way. If there were awards for the person who was the most cancer-free, people lose it, and it’d be understandable. If you did a “top 10 people who didn’t get diabetes this year”, the reaction would be much different.

Instead, we celebrate the beautiful people and give the average person a bunch of unachievable beauty standards to live up to. I’m an optimist though. Seeing the beautiful people makes us want to eat better and start getting back into the gym. Hell, it may even make some of us want to save up some money and get plastic surgery, and if that’s your thing, do you, boo.

Personally, I dream of a day where we do the same with mental health. Not only will it normalize the conversation about staying mentally healthy, but it’s a much more achievable goal to focus on, and it’ll actually make you happier. You can eat right, go to the gym, lose 50 lbs and get botox, and you might still be miserable. Go to therapy once a week and meditate, and you’re much more likely to be satisfied with your life.

It used to bother me that we glamorized people for losing weight and going to the gym but not people overcoming their personal mental health issues. Losing weight is a gigantic accomplishment, but so is coping with trauma, beating depression and not having a complete mental breakdown.

It’s getting a little better, and I’m happy about that, but we still have a long way to go. Whenever a celebrity discusses coping with depression, anxiety, trauma or any other illness, we look at them like this “brave soul”, and calling someone brave for discussing it shows you how big the problem is. If managing your mental health as part of our daily life, there wouldn’t be anything “brave” about it, and that’s how you can tell that we still have work to do.

So what’s the solution? Start recognizing the difference between mental health and mental illness, and make it part of our daily conversation. Realize that mental health doesn’t mean a lack of mental illness, it means being proactive to reduce the chances of mental illness later on. Much like with our body, if we don’t pay attention, we can develop an illness, and psychological disorders often work the same way. When our thoughts and emotions go unchecked, they only get worse.

If you’re looking for affordable therapy from the comfort of your own home, I personally use BetterHelp online therapy. I have a badass therapist, and I highly recommend this easy-to-use service. By clicking here to sign up, it helps support the work I do as well.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @TheRewiredSoul. For more mental health blogs, check out or grab one of my books on anxiety, depression or sobriety here.

Originally published at on November 28, 2019.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store