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Wellness > Mental Health

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness: The Importance of Understanding the Difference

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

Mental health and mental illness are not the same however, the two are oftentimes used interchangeably.

Defining Mental Health and Mental Illness

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines mental illness as “conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood or behavior.” There are over 200 known mental illnesses and mental disorders. Some examples of mental illness include bipolar disorder, major depression, PTSD, anorexia and schizophrenia.

Mental illness is a complex, multidimensional disease. Each individual disorder stems from a number of different factors. Mental illness can be episodic or ongoing. It is diagnosed through physical exams, lab tests and a psychological evaluation.

There are multiple classifications of mental illness, defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. Mental illness is treated through medications, psychotherapy, hospital treatment programs and brain stimulation treatments. Oftentimes a treatment team is implemented to meet the psychiatric, medical and social needs of the diagnosee. 

Conversely, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines mental health as “an important part of overall health and well-being. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” 

To summarize, mental illness is a disease requiring diagnosis and treatment, mental health is not. Mental health is a general state of well-being and state of mind. A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness. In the same way, a person with mental illness can experience “emotional, psychological and social well-being.”

Understanding the Difference

It is vital to increase literacy surrounding mental health and mental illness. The ability to discern the difference between the two will lead to reduced stigma and reduced “self-stigma.”

The misunderstanding between mental health and mental illness can lead to overlooking the signs of mental illness, discourage people from reaching out for help and increase stigmatism. The self-stigma and lack of mental health literacy among those who have mental illness can make situations drastically worse; those who don’t understand the concepts and inner workings of the disease may blame themselves and deter help. 

It is absolutely crucial we as a whole do not spread misinformation in a generation where mental health and mental illness are talked about on all social media platforms constantly; meaning any person can say and share anything they want to. I urge every person to research and fully understand before they share and digest any information they consume knowing the possibilities of bias and false information. This can truly be the factor in someone receiving the help that they need.

Dr. Christopher Palmer emphasizes, “The thing with all mental health disorders is that none of them define the entire person. Although their symptoms might impair their ability to do things others are able to do, they still have areas of strength and competence. Whenever we talk about health versus illness, it’s always important to remember this.”

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

Katherine is a dual major in Health Sciences and Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, with hopes to pursue medical school in the future. In the meantime, she enjoys the unparalleled opportunity that is sharing perspective. When not studying or writing, you can find her outdoors, listening to music, traveling, or rereading the Twilight Saga.