While it is true that the topic of mental health is being brought up more often these days – especially with the spotlight that’s been cast upon it due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – during such conversations, it is not unusual to see people replace the word “mental health” with “mental illness”, despite the fact that the two are separate and should not be confused for the other.
Defining mental health and mental illness
The WHO states that mental health is complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This implies that mental health isn’t simply an absence of mental disorders and disabilities, but it’s more than that. Like physical health, mental health is equally important for your overall health and well-being.
Multiple things can affect our mental health and cause it to go under strain, ranging from psychological, physical, and even biological factors. Our mental health can also be affected by life events; for instance, a messy break-up, being overworked due to your job or having financial problems.
On the other hand, mental illness refers to a wide range of mental conditions. Some examples include anxiety disorders, depression, substance use disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. Mental illnesses are also often referred to as mental health disorders.
A mental illness has to be diagnosed by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. Risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness include:
- Family history of mental illness
- Unresolved trauma from childhood experience
- Stressful life events and experiences such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or the loss of a job
- Exposure of a foetus to drugs or alcohol, due to intake by the mother during pregnancy
Mental Health vs. Mental Illness
It is best to see mental health and mental illness as separate entities operating independently. Someone with a mental illness undergoing treatment can still have good mental health, just like someone with poor mental health might not necessarily have a mental illness.
However, it is essential to note that if one’s mental health isn’t kept in check and is left under strain (exp: prolonged exposure to stress), it can lead to the development of a mental illness such as anxiety or depression.
Why is it important to differentiate between the two?
As stated earlier, mental health and mental illness are two separate things. While they can be influenced by one another, that does not make them interchangeable.
It is essential to speak up about both mental health and mental illness, but it cannot be denied that the two require different solutions or approaches. Social stigma about mental health persists even up till now, as many confuse mental health with mental illness.
People are scared to broach the topic of mental health and may even choose to disregard it, as they believe that taking care of their mental health is shameful, similar to admitting that they are “unwell” and “need to be fixed”. They don’t realise that preserving one’s mental health is imperative, as a decline in mental health can make one more susceptible to mental illness.
Learning the difference between the two is one of the first steps to gaining a deeper understanding of mental health and mental illness and making it less taboo.
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