The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Health Disorder

When people hear the terms mental health and mental health disorder (or mental health illness) they often think of them as one in the same and people frequently use the terms interchangeably. While they are related, they are actually separate concepts. Most probably don’t think about the difference or the impact of using the terms interchangeably unless you are a mental health practitioner or work in the field of mental and behavioral health. Knowing the differences between the terms can help increase awareness, reduce stigma and have more open conversations about our mental health and mental health conditions.

Mental health disorders

When the term mental illness (or mental health disorder or mental health condition) is used, it is referring to a recognized diagnosed disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), now in its 5th edition. In the DSM-V, mental illness is defined specifically as “a syndrome characterized by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.”1 Receiving a diagnosis of a mental health condition can help the individual who is diagnosed communicate about their condition as well as be able to discuss treatment options with a provider.
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What is mental health?

The term mental health and wellbeing refers to our overall functioning in our daily life, how we adapt to change, our communication and behaviors in various environments and in different relationships, how we cope and our resiliency.2 It is a global term for the foundation that allows us to contribute to the world around us. While not everyone will be diagnosed with a mental health condition in their life, everyone has mental health. Just like we manage our physical health, managing our mental health is important. We may go through periods of time when we are experiencing challenges or have stressful events and these can have an impact on our day to day activities and our relationships.

While we want the two terms to be distinguished it doesn’t mean that they aren’t so separate that they don’t overlap. For example, you can simultaneously be diagnosed with a mental health condition or illness and also be working on mental health and wellbeing.
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No matter what- help is available

Part of the confusion that comes with mental health and mental health conditions is that those who have a mental health condition are the only ones who should be seeking out help. Did you know that professional therapists or mental health practitioners do more than just treat individuals with a mental health condition?

Professional therapists or licensed mental health practitioners can help guide you through exercises to cope and manage mental health, they can help improve communication in our relationships (both personal and professional ones), they can help you process situations you are experiencing and help understand your emotional responses to situations. They can provide techniques and everyday tools to help improve focus, mood and even sleep. Just like our physical health, we seek out tools like medications or therapies to help us get better, for mental health, there are various techniques, therapies and everyday tools to help you respond and process your emotional response to certain scenarios.
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Due to the fact that many people think of the two terms in the same way, there is often a lack of awareness of what the impact of poor mental health can have on daily life activities. Often with mental health, we ignore or disregard the signs thinking things will eventually get better or the opposite we think that things won’t ever get better and there isn’t anything we can do about it- but there is!

“Good” mental health doesn’t mean you exude happiness and confidence all the time and disregard what is happening around you, it is about coping despite what is happening around you, it means having balance in your social, emotional and psychological states.

Thinking beyond labels

There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental health conditions and mental health in general. For many, they associate pursuing help to failure, or they think that seeing someone professionally to improve mental health means they have a mental health condition or illness. There is no stigma in having an appointment with a primary care provider, and there shouldn’t be any judgment for someone seeing a therapist or psychiatrist, no matter what the appointment is for.

We all have mental health just like we all have physical health. And just as we monitor our bodies for potential problems or pain, we should keep tabs on our mental health and try to better recognize when it needs some attention.

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