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Mental health vs mental illness: What’s the difference?

When you hear the words “mental health,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it depression? Psychiatry? Disability? Is it, in fact, “mental illness” that you think of?

Many people use the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably, when really, they mean different things.

Mental health and mental illness: what’s the difference?

Mental illnesses are described as disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that are severe enough to affect day-to-day functioning.[1]  Some examples are anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. 

Mental health, however, is a state of well-being, and we all have it. Just like we each have a state of physical health, we also each have our mental health to look after.  It’s not just about surviving, it’s about thriving. It’s enjoying life, having a sense of purpose, and being able to manage life’s highs and lows.

One in five people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year. But five in five of us have mental health.

Mental health isn’t simply the absence of mental illness and living with a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t have good mental health. Just like someone with diabetes, for example, can live a healthy life, so can somebody with a mental illness.

And even if you don’t have a mental illness, that doesn’t mean you’ll feel great all the time. You might experience stress, a difficult life event, or burnout. Just like anyone can catch a cold or flu, everyone can experience the ebbs and flow of well-being. So, there’s not just the one in five of us who have mental illnesses, and “the rest of us” who don’t. There is no rest of us. There is just us—all five in five. We are all on the same team.

What good mental health looks like:

Good mental health might look different from one person to another. But there are six common factors of well-being that we see across different descriptions and definitions from across Canada and around the world. Good mental health includes:

  1. A sense of purpose
  2. Strong relationships
  3. Feeling connected to others
  4. Having a good sense of self
  5. Coping with stress
  6. Enjoying life

We’re all in it together.

Achieving and maintaining good mental health isn’t a one-person journey. In fact, each setting and situation you’re in, and each person you interact with, can impact your well-being.

This means that to truly achieve good mental health for all, it must be a common theme in every workplace, school and neighbourhood. In order to achieve well-being for all, mental health must be the lifeblood running through the veins at all levels of community.

So, next time you think of mental health, think resilience, confidence and connection. Not surviving but thriving. That’s what mental health is all about.

[1] Quick Facts: Mental Illness & Addiction in Canada. Mood Disorders Society of Canada