Mental Health vs. Mental Illness – Changing the Narrative

Can you think of something you’ve done since you were a toddler that was specifically for your mental health?

From the time we were two we knew how to care for our physical health. We were taught to brush our teeth and reminded of it every day until it became a habit. Now let me ask you, what were taught to do every day for your mental health? 

Not long ago I asked some middle school students what comes to mind when I say the words “mental health”. Their answers varied from stress to anxiety to depression, addiction and suicide. I interrupted them as they were shouting their responses, “Hold on one minute. I asked you about mental health.”

Boom! It clicked. Students weren’t naming mental health, they were defining mental illness.

Mental health is not mental illness.











We need to rid our society of the inaccurate label of mental health and start seeing and practicing mental health strategies for what they are. When we speak of mental health it should be words like; self-care, stress management, rest, therapy, relationships, purpose, passion, and coping skills. 

A person seeing a therapist should be treated no different than a person going to the gym. One is taking care of their physical health and the other is taking care of their mental health. We treat our physical injuries by asking for help. It’s time we treat our mental and emotional injuries the same way. There should be no shame in going to therapy for stress or trauma, just like there is no shame in going to the doctor for a broken arm or ear infection.

mental health vs. mental illness

When mental health comes up in the news or on social media, it is often associated with language that would describe a mental illness. It doesn’t need to and shouldn’t be this way. As a society we can change the narrative. People sometimes use the term “mental health” to mean the absence of a mental disorder. Again, we wouldn’t define physical health as the absence of cancer, heart disease or broken bones. 

Below is a list of words to help differentiate between the two. 

Mental Health Language

  • resilience
  • empathy
  • optimism
  • flexibility
  • clear thinking
  • self-confidence
  • stability
  • self-respect
  • spirituality
  • self-care
  • mindset
  • coping skills
  • purpose

Mental Illness Language

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • suicide
  • self-harm
  • hopeless
  • mood swings
  • inability to perform daily tasks

This isn’t only beneficial for creating the correct mindset around mental health, using the correct terminology will also help us understand what defines a mental illness. From there, we can recognize it and reach out for help. It’s a win, win!

Maya Angelou stated it perfectly, “When you know better, you do better”. A simple shift in the narrative can make the stigma around mental health and mental illness better.

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