Mental health vs mental illness. Our CEO discusses mental health language

October 21, 2019

Dr Addie Wootten, our CEO here at Smiling Mind discusses the correct language and terminology when it comes to describing mental health.

Mental health awareness has significantly increased over the last decade with more and more people openly speaking about their experiences and the stigma of mental illness is slowly reducing. This isn’t surprising as we know that one in two of us will experience a mental illness in our lifetime. But more and more commonly ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are terms being used to describe the same thing. But they’re not the same thing.

We all have a mental health, just like we have a physical health, and whilst we won’t all experience a mental illness we will all experience challenges to our mental health.


Confusing the terms

It’s not uncommon to hear the statement: “She’s got mental health”… suggesting that ‘mental health’ is in fact a problem.

If you stop for a moment and consider what comes into your mind when you hear the words mental health, what do you see? Often the words mental health engender ideas of people experiencing anxiety, or depression, or significant psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia or psychosis. We often think of the many mental illnesses that are commonly experienced.

This might seem like semantics but the language we use to describe this very personal human experience does have an impact on how we approach mental health more broadly, how confident we feel in talking about mental health and how we manage our own mental health. It also has the potential to reinforce stigma and isolation and can create a them and us mentality – the idea that only certain people will get a mental illness.

This is simply not the case – mental illness, just like physical illness, can affect anyone.


Defining mental health

Let’s consider for a moment the World Health Organisation’s definition of Mental Health:

“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” (WHO, 2014)

This definition is stark in its absence of references to illness, problems, challenges or concerns. In fact, it solely focusses on the opposite – on health.


Mental health vs physical health

Mental health means just that – how mentally healthy we are.

Physical health doesn’t seem to have this problem. When you hear people talking about physical health they’re often speaking about the things they are doing to be physically fit and healthy – exercise, diet or other preventative approaches that we all know are good for us. In fact, when we speak about poor physical health we’re not afraid of saying it like it is – I’ve got a broken leg, a heart condition, cancer.

Why don’t we have this relationship with our mental health? Mental health is a term that should describe how mentally healthy we are and we shouldn’t be afraid of speaking about mental illness or poor mental health.


Defining mental illness

Mental illness isn’t one single set of symptoms – it’s a broad term that describes a whole range of different illnesses that need to be managed differently. In fact, there is book, hundreds of pages long, that describe all the different types of mental illnesses that we know about – The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (The DSM for short).

Mental health, and mental illness is complex but it’s important to understand that we all have a mental health and the quality of our mental health, just like our physical health, will range throughout our lifetime. This is the case for those of us who have a mental illness too – mental illness can be managed effectively and those of us who experience a mental illness will be able to tell you when their mental health is good and when they’re not at their best.

This approach to mental health is important as it changes the way we think about mental health, how we approach our own mental health and, most importantly, how receptive we are in taking a proactive approach in fostering the best possible mental health we can have.


I encourage you to consider your mental health and the mental health of those around you as an important part of being a human, and pay attention to how this changes your experience and the language you use. It might even change the way you think and relate to the people in your life who might be experiencing a mental illness.