Poor Mental Health vs Mental Illness: Know The Difference!

Would you believe me if i said you can have a mental health illness but still have good mental health?

And that you can have poor mental health but not have a mental illness

Confused? Challenged?
Let me explain and explore this with you. 

Mental health and mental illness are increasingly being seen and referred to as the same thing. My worry is that with the increasing admissions seen in mental health services this year, especially in those under the age of 11,  have we begun to pathologise normal experiences of anxiety, sadness, preoccupation with body image, irritability etc… that EVERYONE gets, especially in young teens and early adulthood.

Are we educating our children and youth how to cope in a high paced, technologically advancing, perfectionistic and high achieving world? To cope with stress? Trauma? Comparisons? Puberty?

 I am worried we are not aware of what mental health is, how we can promote good mental health, and what contributes to POOR MENTAL HEALTH vs MENTAL ILLNESS.

So I’m going to touch on some major points I think we need to be aware of. 


1. W H A T  I S  M E N T A L   H E A L T H ?

Without delving too deep into the complex play off between thoughts & behaviour and how they impact mental health, it is important to see mental health as being both in your mind (thoughts, beliefs, judgements) and in your actions (behaviours, intentions, self-caring vs maladaptive/destructive coping)

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as:
“ Not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of well-being in which EVERY individual realises 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.”

Mental Health Charity MIND go on to further define good mental health:

“Good mental health is when you care about yourself and you care for yourself. You love yourself, not hate yourself. You look after your physical health – eat well, sleep well, exercise and enjoy yourself.”

This leads me nicely onto point numéro deux…

2.  D O   W E   A L L   H A V E   M E N T A L   H E A L T H ?

Yes. Just like we all have physical health we all have a brain that we need to keep healthy.

Your brain is the power house of your body; from keeping your heart beating, blood pumping, hormones racing, libido firing, and appetite regulated.

If sleep deprived, malnourished, stressed, premenstrual, over worked (including exercise!!) your brain undergoes physiological and structural changes that can make you more prone to suffering from anxiety, low mood, restlessness, paranoia, irritability, abnormal appetite…etc

Whilst these things are markers associated with poor mental health this doesn’t mean you will develop e mental illness. This depends on your ability to engage in health promoting & help seeking behaviours that will address the CONTEXT behind what’s inducing these states.

Queue point numéro trois…

3.  C O N T E X T   M A T T E R S

Everyone will experience good and bad mental health, because like our physical health, it’s not always stable. 
Instead it is CONTEXT DEPENDENT and so we need to refrain from pathologising normal responses to situations.
So take of your hypochondriac hat and look at the context it’s in. 

There are also certain times in our lives we are more prone to these experiences, for example adolescence where our brains are going through rapid proliferation (development and growth of our brain cells) and structural development, especially in our prefrontal cortex – the control centre of our personality, situated at the front of your brain in charge of emotional expression, problem solving & libido.

Again into later adulthood women in the menopause experience huge hormonal changes  as well as bodily changes, and this can impact on mental health and self-image. Being aware of these things can help us be proactive and contextualise our moods and emotions in order to respond in self-care instead of judgement.

“Good mental health isn’t about feeling happy and confident 100% of time and ignoring any problems. It’s about living and coping well despite problems” – Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division

I don’t need to tell you that it’s normal to feel down and lethargic after a breakup, or feel unmanageable amounts of grief in response to a death. 
Whilst trauma and stress are two key factors related to development of mental illness they are also normal responses to situations, and unlikely in every situation to reach clinically defined levels of depression.

Research has shown those who spend time on social media and engage in self-comparative behaviours experience higher levels of body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with body image, lowered self esteem and increased disordered eating. All worrying symptoms found in the DSM-V (big clinical diagnostic book) as early warning signs of an eating disorder BUT it doesn’t mean they have, or will develop, a full blown eating disorder.

I am by no means saying you shouldn’t get help when early warning signs kick in
Just that we should be aware of how our environment impacts on our mental health, just as it does our physical health. And we should be proactive about optimising our environment in order to thrive

You can have poor mental health and not have a mental health illness, and you can have mental illness but have good mental health. It all depends on your levels of coping, your behaviours, intentions, ability to reframe your thoughts and engage in proactive self-caring ways” – Joss Walden

Context matters.
And context can change.

4.  N O T H I N G   L I K E   A   B R O K E N   L E G

I’ve often heard mental illness referred to as being like a “broken leg”. 
I disagree.
I think poor mental health can be a bit like a broken leg: you should address the issue, rest it a.s.a.p, because you can, because you have control.
You all know what self-care looks like and you can make small changes in your life to increase your wellbeing.

If poor mental health is a broken leg, then I think mental illness is like a broken body.
At that point, you have no control, you need someone else to step in. In order to recover you need to educate yourself on your illness, you need know your triggers and abilities and limitations,; how your body and mind works, because we all all individual. 

As you rebuild yourself and get stronger, you may still have mental illness but develop good mental health, a positive approach to your condition which allows you to function normally, healthily (whatever normal and healthy may look like) and positively contribute to society.

5. T H E   H E A L T H   C O N T I N U U M  

Like most things mental health is on a continuum and the difference between poor mental health and mental illness lies in the delusions, the anxiety, the inability to change behaviours and its impact on your daily functioning.

There is a difference between having a disordered relationship with food, fuelled by false beliefs about “right and wrongs” of what to eat, guilt and preoccupation with weight and shape compared to an eating disorder, where you’ll find similar beliefs alongside heightened levels of fear and anxiety. Running from mealtimes to escape eating, crying in tears over less than half plate full of food, hyperventilating due to anxiety and never sitting still.

There is a difference between being anal with routine and order, and having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) where intense anxiety beyond belief is experienced if rituals and routines, attached to irrational beliefs, are broken. 

We ALL have the same potential to develop a mental health disorder if we do not take care of ourselves, especially in this fast paced, stress ridden, tech driven and competitive generation that we now live in.

So make sure you checking in with yourself & speaking to friends from time to time about this stuff. 
Being self-aware is a major step in the right direction to becoming proactive mental health warriors.

T A K E   H O M E   P O I N T S

  • We all have mental health. Sometimes it will be good, other times bad, doesn’t mean we have, or will develop, mental illness

  • Mental health is context dependent. It will change depending on a variety of factors that influence our brains functioning such as sleep, stress, nutrition (or lack of), age and development.

  • Our thoughts impact behaviours, and vice versa. Being aware of what we are doing, our self-beliefs, and coping mechanisms can help us move towards self-care strategies that promote good mental health and well-being

  • Mental illness is on a continuum and is nothing like having a broken leg as often described. Levels of distress, daily functioning, delusional beliefs, negative self-talk and social withdrawal are just a few things we can look at when deciding if poor mental health is progressing into mental illness

M O V I N G    F O R W A R D S
We should be teaching ourselves how to manage anxiety, stress, low mood, body dissatisfactions etc.. so that we can become resilient, and respond with self-love instead of self-loathing. 

A C T I O N   P O I N T

Question if what you experience is an appropriate response to the given situation?
Is there anything you can do to make it better? 
What’s preventing you from being proactive about change? 
What advice would you give a friend in the same situation? 
Why does this not apply to you?

This is where counsellors, close friends, parents, journaling, nights out dancing with friends, and making routine around good nutrition, movement, and sleep is key. 

Can’t do these things?
Too anxious?
Then it may be a little more serious… But still may not be a Mental Illness

I hope you have found this post insightful, please do question me on this, if you have enjoyed it give it a like and share, and be sure to follow up the links below if you have further concerns or questions. 

Ciao for now

F U R T H E R   H E L P   &  R E F E R E N C E S

MIND  Mental Health Charity packed full on information on their website.
BEAT  UK’s Leading Eating Disorder Charity
World Health Organisation Information on global health
NHS Mental Health All mental health disorders you can view and learn more about 

E N J O Y E D   T H I S ? ?