Mental Health and Mental Illness: What’s the Difference?

by Melissa Chichester

Mental health is a critical part of health and well-being.

And May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an event created in 1949 to educate the public and raise awareness about mental illness. During this time, there is no better time than to check in on your own mental health and that of friends, family members, and others. One place to start is by understanding the signs of when a decrease in mental health may actually be a sign of mental illness. Knowing more about mental health can empower anyone to help others. 

The state of mental health right now

Unfortunately, millions of people deal with mental health issues and mental illnesses around the world. 

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • More than 20% of adults in the United States dealt with mental illness in 2019 – the equivalent of 1 in 5 people
  • Anxiety disorders are the leading cause of mental illness, affecting 48 million people in the US
  • In the global economy, depression and anxiety orders cost $1 trillion in lost productivity every year
  • Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US 
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14
  • More than 8 million Americans care for someone with a mental illness 

These statistics highlight why it is so important to encourage people to seek help for mental health when they need it. Unfortunately, negative attitudes toward people with mental illness or mental health challenges are common. Knowing more about mental health can help diffuse the stigma surrounding it and encourage people to get help. 

Common signs of mental illness

The science behind mental illness is extremely complicated. It can’t be tested the same way other diseases can; there is no blood test or exam that will deliver a concrete result. Every condition is unique in its symptoms and severity and needs to be diagnosed by a healthcare professional. However, there are signs of mental illness that anyone can look for. 

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that the following are common signs of mental illness: 

  • Rapid mood changes
  • Problems concentrating or focusing
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Nervousness and fear
  • Exaggerated beliefs and illogical thoughts
  • Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds, and touch
  • Sleep and appetite changes
  • Social withdrawal 

How to help someone who is living with a mental illness

When a friend or family member is living with a mental illness or mood disorder, you might feel helpless. However, there are ways you can make a difference. 

  1. Speak with a healthcare professional – it is important that you have someone to talk with so that you do not feel alone. 
  2. Learn more about mental illness – find reliable sources from the National Institutes of Health or healthcare institutions about the specific disorder your loved one is facing. 
  3. Take a mental health education class.
  4. Find a mental health support group. 

The difference between mental health and mental illness 

It is important to note that mental health and mental illness are not exactly the same.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health “ is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

On the other hand, the APA states that mental illnesses “are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these).”  

Mental health can be maintained and improved by taking specific actions daily.  Mental illness requires working with a healthcare professional to receive the proper testing and potential medications (if necessary). 

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How to support mental health 

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Luckily, many actions that promote physical health also promote mental health, including:

  • Getting more sleep 
  • Making time for self-care 
  • Exercising, which increases endorphins and serotonin to boost your mood
  • Spending time with friends
  • Keep stress under control 
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get a regular physical exam 
  • Spend time outdoors 

For many people, talking about mental health is challenging, and this is completely normal. However, a healthy state of mind is integral to maintaining your well-being. Never be ashamed of asking for help and reach out to a healthcare professional if necessary.