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Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

I am guilty of using the terms mental health and mental illness almost interchangeably. I have noticed many others do this as well. The two terms have very different meanings, though and it is my opinion that using them in a similar way is confusing and harmful when trying to discuss issues involving psychology.

Everyone has mental health. Mental health can involve the stress of a job or life change. Mental health can involve grief and loss. Mental wellness (good mental health) can encompass diet, exercise, sleep, etc. The cure for most mental health issues is therapy, yoga, time, exercise, art and many other non-medical solutions or practices.

Statics show 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, although those numbers are high, it does not include all people. Also, mental illness frequently requires treatment with some form of medication or intervention by a medical doctor.  defines mental health as:

  1. psychological well-being and satisfactory adjustment to society and theordinary demands of life.
  2. The field of medicine concerned with the maintenance or achievement of such well-being and adjustment.

The same site has this definition for mental illness:

1.any of the various forms of psychosis or severe neurosis.

It is my opinion that broadly or generally using the term mental health to refer to or include mental illness has helped reduce the stigma of mental illnesses overall, but I think it has led to other problems. I think now people who have marital problems or problems with their children or need to speak to a therapist because they lost a parent, might have a hard time talking about “mental health” issues because they don’t want their difficulties to come across as a mental illness.

It also has made it more difficult to take someone with a mental illness seriously as well. When someone with a mental illness has symptoms or issues that require them to take action or need more care they might not get a response that is equal to the severity of their issue. For example, if someone with schizophrenia says, “I’m having difficulties with my mental health,” that might not be taken as seriously as if they said, “I’m suffering from symptoms of my mental illness.”

Language evolves over time so that it can incorporate new technology, life changes, and our changing views. For instance, only recently have we seen the word Latinx in place of Latino or Latina. Latinx makes the word gender neutral. Another example is how I prefer to have someone address me as a person with schizophrenia rather than a schizophrenic. (Many people have learned over time to put the person before the illness and not identify someone by solely by their illness). There are many examples such as these in our language.

I am hoping that someone in the mental health world will come up with a new phrase to deal with life challenges like stress or grief so we can make a clear distinction between issues of overall (general) mental health and issues of mental illness.












Photo by Nick Kenrick..

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Rebecca Chamaa

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APA Reference
Chamaa, R. (2017). Mental Health vs. Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 10 Apr 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Apr 2017
Published on All rights reserved.