Mental Health is NOT Mental Illness. Why We Need to Get Clear on the Difference

What is the difference between Mental Health and Mental Illness?

The growth of mental health awareness over the past 5-10 years is encouraging. Campaigns such as Bell Let’s Talk and the efforts of many people are commendable.

Today it seems as though people are getting lost at a fork in the road. One road leads to mental health and the other to mental illness. I would encourage people to take a moment to pause and contemplate this important distinction. If we don‘t, we risk overlooking the crucial details of the two terms. In the valuable pursuit of widening the discussion, the intricacy of people‘s daily struggles is getting misinterpreted as a ‘mental health’ problem or mental illness.

The confusion between the two is clear to see in statistics such as a 2018 Sun Life Financial Poll, which says, 49% of Canadians have experienced a mental health issue.

Here’s where it gets tricky.

The saying goes, “Everyone has mental health“. Which is true, if you have a brain, and you are human, then yes, you have mental health. In this case, it’s reasonable to say that 100% of Canadians have experienced a mental health issue.

So, what is it, Mental Health or Mental Illness?


We must get clear about this difference. If we don’t, we will create health care strategies doomed to fail because we are not properly diagnosing the problems. Struggling with your feelings and having difficulties with your thoughts and stressful life events is not a mental illness. Rather, it is called, being human.

Here is a video I made to help explain the difference between mental health and mental illness.

The Dual Continua Model by Keyes, C. L. (2014)

the Dual Continua Model of Mental Health & Mental Illness
  • Mental health and mental illness are distinct but interrelated concepts.
  • Individuals experiencing mental illness can experience positive mental health at the same time.
  • Individuals without mental illness can experience poor mental health.
  • Experiences of mental health and mental illness are not static, but modifiable. (CAMH/HPRC)

I like how the World Health Organization defines 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.

The positive dimension of mental health is stressed in WHO’s definition of health as contained in its constitution: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

I like how the Mayo Clinic defines mental illness.

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.

Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.

Understanding the difference is important and learning how to identify whether we’re stressed, run down, or burnt out vs whether we’re experiencing the potential onset of a mental illness is important. As a point of interest, if you EVER sense that something inside you doesn’t feel right or ok, seek help or consult with a medical professional. Don’t use Google to diagnose yourself :).

When we can clarify and understand the difference between mental health and mental illness, we can then address our situation.

Where does this leave us in the journey of developing self-awareness about our mental health?

Starts With Me teaches people to value the practice of taking thoughtful pauses in their daily lives. We encourage people to cultivate the habit of self-reflection in order to increase self-awareness. Our hope is that we might value the quality of our mental health and what is meaningful in our lives.

When we get caught up in daily routines, we overlook many simple joys and pleasures. We become blind to patterns of thinking and behaving that cause us stress, anxiety, and fatigue, which contain the potential for our ‘mental health’ to suffer. 

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When we turn off the auto-pilot and take the precious moments to pause and reflect, we open ourselves to the potential for insight, healing, and a deeper sense of what is important and how we can contribute to our personal wellbeing and to that of others.

We would love to hear your thoughts and for you to make use of our Self-Care & Self-Awareness guide. You can download it for free here – Starts With Me Self Care E-Book 

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  1. Keyes, C. L. (2014). Mental health as a complete state: How the salutogenic perspective completes the picture. In Bridging occupational, organizational and public health (pp. 179-192). Springer, Dordrecht.
  2. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health | Health Promotion Resource Centre (2013) (CAMH/HPRC). 


  1. Conflation between mental health and “mental illness” is not a recent development even though there is certainly an issue with mental health being used to describe both conditions with more intensity these days with mental health awareness. You should know, however, that there is a slow-growing movement among advocates to push back against the term “mental illness”

    In fact, there is a problem with this statement: “…But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function”.
    If this comment is referring to medical disorders like the “schizophrenia” symptom complex or bipolar, or major “depression”, then this statement is just wrong and it turns on what does “mental illness” mean in the statement? These disorders are not “mental illnesses”, they are neurological disorders. A mind can only be sick in a metaphorical sense.

    A mental health condition does not convert to a grave neurological disorder at the point that a person’s functioning become disrupted. And it can be the case that someone can have a very serious case of neurogenic dysmentation (so-called psychosis) and feel like they are doing perfectly fine. The degree of distress or inability to function (whatever that means) should not define whether someone has a very serious brain function disorder. In fact, a mental health crisis can impair functioning and cause distress. Impaired functioning with a serious brain disorder should be characterized by loss of insight (anosognosia), regulatory control (neurobehavioral symptoms, or becoming neurologically detached from reality.

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