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What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Dr Tim Sharp

Let's explore the differences and what you can do to improve your mental wellbeing

Two women talking while sitting on a couch
Two women talking while sitting on a couch

Most people struggle with their mental health from time to time, whether it’s brought on by stress from work, financial issues or relationship strain. And, while there’s nothing wrong with taking a mental health day away from the office when things get too much, how do you know when your stress has become something more serious? And what is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

What is mental health?

Mental health refers to an individual’s emotional, psychological and social wellbeing; it’s all about how a person thinks, feels and acts. Your mental health can impact how you deal with stress, how easily you relate to others and the choices you make on a day-to-day basis.

Sometimes our mental health comes under strain from life events – a relationship break-up, difficult work situation, family problems or the challenges that come with a global pandemic. All of us have varying thresholds for how much we can cope with before our mental health suffers.

“The term ‘mental health’ is often misused,” says positive psychologist and The Happiness Institute founder Dr Tim Sharp, otherwise known as Dr Happy. “It’s often used when people really mean mental ill-health or mental illness, but mental health really refers to a state of psychological wellbeing; an absence of or minimal levels of distress, and the presence of positive emotions like happiness and satisfaction with life.”

Whatever you do, don’t expect to be happy all the time – just about everyone will face mental health challenges at some stage of their life.

Don’t expect to be happy all the time – just about everyone will face mental health challenges at some stage.

“Expecting to be happy all the time would be completely unrealistic, bordering on the absurd, and even potentially unhealthy,” Tim says.

Feelings like fear and anxiety, frustration and anger are perfectly normal and even appropriate at times, he says.

“The goal, then, should be to enjoy as many positive emotions (like happiness) as possible but also to accept and to appropriately manage the distressing emotions so they don’t overwhelm us or impact too much on our ability to function in the world.”

Tim is also Chief Happiness Officer at batyr, a mental health charity for young people supported by nib foundation.

What does good mental health look like?

Good mental health is more than not having any symptoms of mental illness or discord; it’s a state of wellbeing that allows us to take pleasure and satisfaction from life and bounce back when things don’t go to plan. Mentally resilient people are still affected by setbacks, but they can better deal with stress and disappointment and recover more quickly. 

“Good mental health will look different in different people but, as a general rule, good mental health includes high levels of positive emotions (like happiness and joy, satisfaction and confidence) and low levels of negative emotions (like depression and anxiety),” Tim says. “Good mental health would almost always also include the presence of good physical health, positive relationships and meaningful work.”

Three men sitting down having a conversation

How to look after your mental health

Taking care of your psychological wellbeing is just as important as taking care of your physical wellbeing. Developing self-care for your mind can help you prevent mental health issues and give you strategies to cope with milder problems if they arise.

When we’re feeling stressed or down, it helps to accept that it’s OK not to be OK all the time, Tim says.

“This is important, because if we deny or try to fight this then the stress tends to fight back stronger!” he says. “That being said, just as it’s OK not to be OK all the time, it’s also OK to try to be OK; to try to feel better.”

We can do this by taking small steps, whatever we feel is manageable, to set and work towards meaningful goals, practise self-care, eat well and get some exercise in, Tim says.

“We can also practise gratitude for whatever good we have in our lives, and reach out and connect with others,” he adds. “Just as it’s OK not to be OK it’s also OK to reach out and ask for help; in fact, at times it’s essential.”

5 ways to care for your mental wellbeing

Some of the ways we can improve our physical health and wellness have a big impact on our mental health too. Here are five ways to look after your mental health:

1. Avoid relying on alcohol or drugs

While alcohol can temporarily give you a lift and help you relax, the downside is that it can interfere with sleep, make you more anxious and increase feelings of stress in the long term. Illicit drugs can tip a vulnerable person into mental illness and, for anyone with a mental illness, using drugs can make symptoms worse.

2. Practise mindfulness

Much of our anxiety is based on ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. If we can bring our awareness to the present and observe our thoughts, rather than judge them, we can reduce stress and protect against anxiety. Mindfulness can be practised in small moments during the day or during meditation.

Related: Mind full? A beginner’s guide to mindfulness

3. Keep a gratitude journal

Psychologists have found that people who practise gratitude by consciously counting their blessings for the good things in their life feel happier. Writing down two things you’re grateful for each morning can get your day off to a positive start.

4. Manage your stress

We can’t eliminate stress from our lives, but we can work to minimise it. Exercise, mindfulness and meditation help, but Beyond Blue also recommends postponing major life changes when you’re already under stress, resolving personal conflicts, and doing more of the things you enjoy – whether it be gardening, reading, or spending time with family and friends.

Related: Five-day stress less challenge

5. Learn cognitive defusion

Cognitive defusion is a technique that teaches us to take a step back and detach ourselves from our thoughts when they are repetitive, negative or unhelpful. Negative thoughts are normal, but we don’t have to believe them or engage with them.

What is mental illness?

We all face ups and downs, but mental illnesses are complex mental health challenges that aren’t just part of everyday life.

The latest national survey found nearly half of all Australians will have a mental illness in their lifetime, and one in five had a mental illness in the previous 12 months. 

“There’s a difference between the ‘normal’ experience of negative emotions and what might sometimes be referred to as ‘abnormal’ or clinical levels of distress,” Tim says. “Depression is a normal human emotion, for example, but Major Depressive Disorder is obviously not ideal.”

The difference between mental ill-health and mental illness often lies in the extent to which these emotions impact on our lives, Tim explains. “If depression or anxiety or any other form of distress is having a significant impact on one’s ability to function, to work or study or socialise, especially over a prolonged period of at least one or more than two weeks, then that’s when we might consider a more formal diagnosis of mental illness and when seeking professional help would be very much recommended.”

It’s important to remember that a mental illness rarely manifests the same way in one person as it does in another. Depression can look and feel very different to different people, for example.

“In fact, depression is almost certainly not just one disorder. Different types of mental ill-health, like Major Depressive Disorder or one of the Anxiety Disorders, are what we call syndromes, collections of signs and symptoms, and the exact combination of those signs and symptoms can very much differ across individuals.”

Credit: nib health insurance

What are some of the types of mental illness?

Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety are classified as mental illnesses, and standard criteria are used to diagnose them. Other examples include schizophrenia, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar affective disorder.

“What might be considered ‘normal’ distress can develop into a more formal mental illness if left unchecked and if left unaddressed, which is why it’s so important to be aware of early warning signs and to seek help sooner rather than later,” Tim says.

Related: 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing!

We should all be talking more about mental health and mental illness, Tim adds, because for too long now a stigma has existed around these topics.

Talking more openly about mental ill-health can smash the stigma, making it easier for people to get the help they need.

“With stigma comes a reluctance to seek help, which means people suffer in silence and unnecessarily,” he says. “Talking more openly about mental ill-health can address and smash the stigma, making it easier for people to get the help they need and thus, to get on with and to live more fulfilling lives.”

Where to get help for mental health

If you are struggling with your mental wellbeing, reach out to the people around you and seek professional mental health support from your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Your GP can help by referring you to a relevant health practitioner, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist and writing a mental health treatment plan that entitles you to Medicare rebates for up to 20 sessions a year.

If you have an urgent need for help with your mental health, contact one of the helplines below.

National helplines

  • Lifeline (24 hours): 13 11 14

  • Kids Helpline (24 hours): 1800 55 1800

  • MensLine Australia (24 hours): 1300 78 99 78

  • SANE Helpline (mental illness information, support and referral): 1800 18 7263

Dr Tim Sharp aka Dr Happy smiling at the camera while wearing a navy suit and glasses

Dr Tim Sharp

Dr Tim Sharp is Australia’s very own ‘Dr Happy’ who is at the forefront of the positive psychology movement with three degrees in psychology (including a PhD.). Dr Happy is a passionate professional with a wealth of experience both in the field and the media, and is the founder and CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) of The Happiness Institute, Australia’s first and best known organisation devoted to enhancing happiness. Tim really loves coffee; maybe a little too much...