Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness

With COVID-19 placing a strain on our emotional wellbeing (Office for National Statistics, 2020), this year’s World Mental Health Day is even more pertinent to discuss and raise the profile of mental health illness. However, all too often the terms mental health and mental health illness are used interchangeably as if they are synonymous with one another, leaving those diagnosed with an actual mental health illness misunderstood and possibly feeling belittled. In our bid to remove the stigma of mental health in society through mental health campaigns, it now seems everyone feels they have a mental health disorder; therefore, are we conversely creating a mental health confusion culture?

Most people experience anxiety and worry – these are commonplace emotions that are part and parcel of human experience. From getting caught in a traffic jam to experiencing jitters before an interview, life is full of these possibly nerve-wracking moments. However, these feelings are not to be confused with an anxiety disorder. Similarly, I overheard a woman shopping in Next this week with her friend, berate herself in the mirror, “I would never fit into this, I look so fat” to which her friend replied, “No you don’t, you have body dysmorphia”. I am not sure of the in-workings of this woman’s mind, but body dysmorphic disorder seriously affects one’s body image and has strong associations with an eating disorder which steals the lives of many each year. Mental health was once a taboo subject, where if you admitted to such, you risked misguided prejudice – treated as a social pariah. Whereas now, mental health has suddenly become normalised and is downplayed to everyone’s experience. It is important we learn the difference between mental health and mental health illness if we are to truly empathise with others. 

With the Government pushing a mental health agenda in schools through the new Relationships, Sex and Education framework (Gov.uk, 2019), coupled with information readily available on world wide web, we have become a culture of self-diagnosis. If I was to experience a cough today, I could Google my symptoms, and discover a whole range of possible diagnoses from coronavirus to asthma. Now, we have a mental health verdict at the end of our fingertips or via a quick diagnosis quiz. As a health professional, I know all too well the importance of clinical judgement to make a conclusion of someone’s health and the many dangers of self-diagnosis.  In today’s society, we are bombarded with online information – which of course can be at times helpful, especially when dealing with complicated strong emotions; however, vulnerabilities lie when we confuse emotions with mental health illness. Everyone experiences periods of feeling low, this does not mean you have depression. Everyone can experience rigid routines; this does not mean you have OCD. Over-diagnosing trivialises the experience of the many who actually experience a mental health illness.

The media are keen to report on our mental health epidemic and rising cases of mental health illness – is this the true picture or are just more people becoming confused between their emotions and actual mental health illness? Are we just better at recognition and de-stigmatisation? The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is increasing investment in mental health services, an under-funded area of health – however, how are we to know what to invest in if we are so blinded by our own emotions and poor education around what mental health illness actually is. This year instead of indulging in throwaway comments on your social media about alleged mental health illness, why not educate yourself instead on what actually is mental health.


Gov.uk (2019) Press Release: all pupils will be taught about mental and physical wellbeing, Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/all-pupils-will-be-taught-about-mental-and-physical-wellbeing, Accessed on 08/10/2020 

Office for National Statistics (2020) Coronavirus and the social impacts of Great Britain: 5 June 2020, Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritain/5june2020 Accessed on 08/10/2020

Author: Esther Dark

Twitter: @EstherDark3

Bio: Esther Dark is an Occupational Therapist working in mental health, and is passionate about supporting those find hope and recovery from mental health illness.

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