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Mental Health and Mental Illness – Are they the same?

September 2019

Mental health and mental illness – Are they the same? We often use these terms as if they mean the same thing, but they are not!

It’s important to understand that everyone has mental health just like everyone has physical health. A person can have good physical health and at the same time have a physical illness such as diabetes. Similarly, people can experience good mental health and also have a mental illness at the same time. As the World Health Organization famously says, “There is no health without mental health!”

To understand mental health, it is necessary to understand the three related components of mental health: mental distress, mental health problems and mental illness.

Mental Distress is the inner signal of anxiety that a person experiences when something in their environment is demanding that they adapt to a challenge (for example: work or school responsibilities, not making a sports team, etc.). These situation effect our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to problem solve and interact with others. Mental distress is normal and a very necessary part of learning to adapt and develop our resiliency. Most people experience mental distress every single day. We often learn to manage distressing events by trial and error, getting advice from others, role modelling from others etc.

Sometimes we experience more distressing events that can lead to developing a Mental Health Problems. Emotions such as grief, anger, anxiety are normal reactions to unexpected events of life. These emotions are also accompanied by difficulties with a person’s thinking, and behavior that may interfere with a person’s day to day functioning.  When this occurs we may need additional supports to help assist us with these problems in functioning.  First and foremost, support from our natural supports help us when we experience mental health problems.  Assistance from therapists, your primary care provider, and other helping professionals may also be beneficial while experiencing a mental health problem.

A mental illness, on the other hand, is a biological diagnosed medical condition, that results in disturbances of a person’s emotions  (panic attacks, depression, overwhelming anxiety); thinking (hopelessness, delusions, suicidal thoughts); physical symptoms (fatigue, excessive movement); and behavior (refusing to go to school,  withdrawal, neglect of self-care. There are many different mental illness, each characterized by different set of symptoms as well as the range in intensity thus effecting a person’s day to day functioning.

Think of health as being on a continuum, ranging from exemplary health to illness, with varying degrees of healthy states in between. So for example some people have good health and have no problems going about their lives.

One of the most important parts of good mental health is the ability to look at our problems or concerns realistically. Good mental health isn’t about feeling happiness, contentment and confident 100% of the time, it’s about understanding that life has its ups and downs and knowing how to cope and work through problems with our natural supports and those around us. Mental Wellness is characterized by our ability to bounce back from life’s obstacles. With the right supports and tools, anyone can live well, find meaning, contribute to their communities, and work towards their goals.


Mental Illness Awareness Events in Swan River - Information Sessions - Chili Cook-Off

MIAW 2019