Mental Health

The Difference Between Mental Health vs Mental Illness

Key Takeaways

However, there's a big difference between occasional mental health problems and ongoing poor mental health or mental illness. In this article, we'll help you understand the difference between mental health and mental illness and how to identify the symptoms of mental health problems. Then we'll give you some tools and ideas for staying mentally healthy and resilient and provide some great free options for getting help with your mental health.

What is mental health?

Mental health is a general term that refers to your overall mental wellbeing. Someone with good mental health is able to appropriately deal with the stresses of everyday life, be a productive and functional member of society, and bounce back from challenges.

Having good mental health does not mean that you don't have a mental illness. People with diagnosable mental illnesses can still achieve good mental health through developing a treatment plan that keeps them emotionally stable (usually with the help of a professional). 

While anyone’s mental health can suffer due to life events, having good mental health means that you’ll be able to make it through those difficult times and continue to find satisfaction in your life. Even if you have good mental health in general, you may find yourself seeking out information or professional help to learn to cope with new life challenges or changes in your mental state.

What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Many people may confuse the two, but mental health and mental illness are two distinct (but related) terms. While the term "mental health" refers to your general psychological and emotional wellbeing, mental illnesses are specific mental health conditions that are diagnosable.

Mental illnesses are health problems that impact how your brain functions. When medical professionals are determining whether or not you have a mental illness (also known as a mental health disorder), they will use standardized criteria to come up with a diagnosis.

There are over 200 classified types of mental illness, according to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Different mental illnesses can range in terms of severity, and multiple mental illnesses can occur at the same time. Mental illness can also be temporary or long lasting. Mental illnesses are also much more common than people may realize, with over 264 million people worldwide suffering from depression alone.

How are mental health and mental illness connected?

Every person has mental health, but not everyone has a mental illness. Your mental health can change over time due to a variety of factors. Untreated stress can even lead to mental illness if you don't address the problem when it arises.

Anyone can have mental health issues, whether or not they have a mental illness. People with undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses will likely struggle to maintain good mental health, while a person with a diagnosed mental illness can have good mental health if their treatment plan is working.

What does it mean to have good mental health?

When a person has good mental health, they feel capable of dealing with their day to day life. They are able to enjoy themselves, be productive, and feel positive and hopeful. While they will still be affected emotionally and psychologically when stressful events happen, they will have the resilience to bounce back. They will also have the ability to interact with others, maintain healthy relationships, and have good self esteem.

How to achieve good mental health

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being “mentally healthy,” but there are definitely some tried and true methods that could help.

Work on your physical health

There's a clear connection between mental and physical health. Mental health problems actually put you at risk for developing chronic physical health issues. Likewise, improving your physical health can help to improve your mental health. Here are a few ideas for how you can work on your physical health.

  1. Get more exercise

Exercise may improve your mental health "by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function."

  1. Improve your sleep habits

Since sleep deprivation can negatively impact your mental health, try to get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.

  1. Work on maintaining a healthy diet

A healthy diet can positively impact your physical and mental health, while a poor diet can increase the symptoms of depression and anxiety like sluggishness, lack of focus, and less energy. Healthy food can improve your sleep, energy levels, and your ability to concentrate.

Avoid self medicating

If you're struggling with your mental health, don't try to take matters into your own hands by using alcohol or drugs to cope. Substance abuse is common in people with mental health disorders, and can make existing symptoms worse. If you think you could benefit from medication for mental illness, talk to your doctor about finding the right choice for you.

Develop coping skills

Another approach to dealing with mental health issues is to to develop stress management techniques and practices to help you maintain good mental health. You could try practicing mindfulness, where you attempt to remain present in the current moment rather than experiencing anxiety from worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. Some people also use meditation or journalling to help them cope with anxiety and other mental health issues.

Practice self care

Make time for yourself, whether that means leaving your work at the office or engaging in activities you enjoy like crafting or yoga. You need to look after yourself before prioritizing others, so set clear boundaries and leave your work at the office.

Ask for help

Whether you need support from your loved ones or help from a professional, there's no shame in asking for help. Talk to someone you trust or use some the ideas we've gathered below.

Where to get help for mental health

Don't feel ashamed if you're not able to deal with the symptoms of poor mental health on your own. You may not be equipped with coping mechanisms, or you may have an undiagnosed mental illness that's preventing you from living your life fully. It's always better to ask for help rather than continue to feel bad all on your own and risk your symptoms getting worse. Here are some ideas for how you can get help for mental health issues.

Talk to your doctor

It's always a good idea to speak with a doctor if you're struggling with your mental health. A doctor can provide you with information and help you to come up with a plan for improving your mental health, which might include medications, counselling or referral to a specialist.

Try therapy

Psychotherapy is often recommended when someone is experiencing mental health issues. By speaking with a therapist, psychologist, or other type of counsellor, you'll be able to express your feelings and learn constructive methods of coping.

Kids Help Phone

While Kids Help Phone is meant for young people, there is no specific age limit for accessing their free 24/7 resources. In addition to a large online catalogue on topics ranging from eating disorders to bullying and beyond, they also offer multiple options for free, anonymous, live support. Depending on what you feel most comfortable with, you can use their peer-to-peer online support forum, their phone call service, or receive support via text or Facebook Messenger. You can also live chat for free with a professional counsellor during the hours of 7 pm to midnight ET.

Crisis Services Canada

Wherever you live in Canada, Crisis Services Canada can help you access local resources to help with your mental health.

Wellness Together

Wellness Together offers free, 24/7 confidential support for people in Canada and Canadians abroad. They provide online resources, phone and text counselling, and you can even track your mental health using their regular wellness assessments when you create an account.

Hope for Wellness

The Hope for Wellness Help Line provides phone and chat counselling for Indigenous people across Canada. They operate in English and French, and can provide services in Cree, Ojibway, and Inuktitut on request.

Now that you know the differences between mental health and mental illness and how to find help for mental health issues, you're well on your way to managing your mental wellbeing.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts and needs immediate assistance, call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566, available 24/7. You can also text 45645 after 4pm EST. Check out our list of 90+ mental health resources in Canada here.

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