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Mental health vs mental illness

Let's explore the differences and how they intersect

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?

What is mental health?

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as a state of wellbeing 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 their community.

While it might sound complicated and wordy, this definition tells us that mental health is more than not having any symptoms of mental illness or discord; it’s being able to deal robustly with life’s challenges. Plus being able to take pleasure and satisfaction from life.

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

What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Mental illness is different to mental health. Mental illness includes a range of conditions for which there are standard criteria used to diagnose them, such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

A mental illness significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with other people.

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.

How do mental health and mental illness intersect?

We often think of our mental state as a continuum, with good mental health being at one end and diagnosable mental illness at the opposite end - and we are somewhere on this scale at any one time. While it’s true that our mental state is not constant – it moves about over time – this continuum model may not truly reflect the relationship between mental health and mental illness.

It’s helpful to think of mental health and mental illness as separate entities working independently. You can have good mental health but be living with a diagnosed mental illness that is being treated successfully. Or you can have poor mental health but not have a mental illness.

That said, if a mental health issue like stress is intense or allowed to continue unrestrained, it can lead to a mental illness such as anxiety or depression.

What does good mental health look like?

Good mental health is about living life to your full potential. It’s about being socially connected and having fulfilling social relationships. Feeling good about your life; setting goals and being able to make decisions. Here are some attributes that have been found to be associated with good mental health.

1. Resilience

Resilience is the ability to cope well with stress and bounce back. People lacking in resilience may ruminate on problems and not be able to put things behind them or move on. Although resilient people are still affected by set-backs, they handle the stress and disappointment and recover more quickly.

2. Social wellbeing

This is another important aspect of mental health. Healthy relationships support good mental health, but being socially isolated or not having supportive relationships can impact your mental health.

Other characteristics that increase your chances of having good mental health are being optimistic and positive, having good self-esteem, feeling your life has meaning and that you accomplish things.

3. Looking 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 avoid mental health issues in the first place and also give you strategies to cope with milder problems if they arise. Keen to learn about practical ways to manage your stress? We’ve spoke with nib foundation partner, Black Dog Institute, to put together a 5-day stress less challenge to help combat moods and anxiety levels.

As it turns out, some of the advice given to improve your physical health and wellness actually has a big impact on your mental health too. Regular exercise, a healthy diet and quality sleep are all inextricably linked to our mental health and can reduce the risk of depression.

4. Don’t self-medicate with alcohol or drugs

While alcohol can temporarily give you a lift and help you relax, the downside is that it interferes with sleep, can make you more anxious and increases feelings of stress in the long term. Illicit drugs are never a good idea - and can tip a vulnerable person into mental illness. For anyone with a mental illness, using drugs can just make symptoms worse.

Learning coping skills and improving your resilience can also help you manage your feelings and weather life’s ups and downs with more ease.

5. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a technique used to anchor your thoughts in the present. Much of our anxiety is based on ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. So 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 as meditation. Check out our article a beginner’s guide to mindfulness for more.

6. Meditation

This is a practised skill that can help you manage your mental health and also mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

7. Gratitude

Psychologists have found that people who practise gratitude by being thankful for the good things in their life feel more positive emotions and are happier.

8. Stress management

Managing stress is important for good mental health. Beyond Blue recommends you resolve personal conflict, spend time doing things you enjoy and get support from a friend, counsellor or doctor, if needed. Relax with whatever helps you unwind - yoga, stretching or a walk in the woods (anyone up for a bit of forest therapy?).

9. Cognitive defusion

This is a technique to detach ourselves from our thoughts and is helpful when repetitive, negative or unhelpful thoughts keep cropping up in our head. Negative thoughts are normal, but we don’t have to believe them or engage with them.

Credit: nib health insurance

Where to get help with mental health issues

It’s important to seek support early if you think you have a mental health issue and your GP is a good place to start. He or she may be able to write you a mental health care plan, which will involve setting you up with expert care. A mental health care plan entitles you to Medicare rebates for up to 10 sessions per year with a relevant health practitioner, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.

There are lots of resources to help with mental health in Australia, from support groups and helplines to Government websites and programs. In Australia we also have access to free support – check out our article 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing!

At nib, we offer the MindStep program for members who’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. This six-week phone-based mental health program is designed to help you take control of your symptoms and maintain your recovery in the privacy of your own home. Fully funded by nib for eligible nib members, it includes one-on-one coaching, practical tips and a tailored program designed to complement your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist care plan. Interested in the MindStep program? Complete our online enquiry form and we’ll be in touch to discuss your situation.

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

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