Everyone has mental health, but not everyone receives a diagnosis involving a mental illness. Mental health includes your overall well-being. Mental illnesses are diagnosable mental health conditions.
The definitions of mental health and mental illness will vary, depending on who you ask. Even within the medical community, these terms have no single definition.
But many agree that while mental illness falls under the umbrella of mental health, the two terms aren’t interchangeable.
Just because your mental health isn’t in great shape doesn’t always mean you have a mental illness. And just because you live with a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean your mental health is currently in a bad place.
Mental illnesses — also called mental health conditions or mental disorders — are diagnosable conditions. They often involve a highly distressing change in your thinking, emotions, or behaviors and can affect how you perform some daily activities.
To receive a diagnosis involving any mental health condition, a mental health professional will interview you to learn about:
- the symptoms you’re experiencing
- how long they’ve been happening
- how severe they are
- potential causes of your symptoms
Many people live with mental health conditions. More than
- bipolar disorder
- substance use disorders
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- eating disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- neurodevelopmental disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder
- personality disorders
While “mental illness” is still well-known and used, many people prefer to use “mental health condition.” This helps us separate further from stigmatizing phrases like “mentally ill.”
But the terms “mental illness” and “mental disorders” are still used widely, and opinions differ on how acceptable they are. Most communities do suggest avoiding terms such as:
- mentally disabled or handicapped
- mentally ill
- crazy, insane, nuts, or psycho
So, what do I say? Instead of saying someone is mentally ill, say that “person is living with a mental health condition.”
According to the
- effectively coping with stressors
- learning and working well
- contributing to their community
Still, mental health is complex, and your mental health will be unique to you. What looks like good mental health for one person won’t be the same for someone else. Remember, you can have good mental health while living with a mental health condition.
Remember that mental health is health. It’s just as important as your physical health and an important part of your overall well-being.
Can you have poor mental health without a mental illness?
Yes. Poor mental health doesn’t mean you have a mental health condition. You can experience a low mood without living with depression or be anxious without having an anxiety disorder.
Poor mental health might occur due to:
You could be having challenges with your mood, sleep, appetite, or performing daily activities for many reasons. It doesn’t mean you fit the criteria of having a mental health condition.
Can you have a mental illness with good mental health?
Yes. This may seem confusing, as most symptoms of mental health conditions involve distress that can affect how you perform some daily activities.
But many people live with mental illnesses that are in remission or stabilized with medication, therapy, and self-care tools. Their mental health may currently be in a good place, but that doesn’t mean they don’t live with a mental health condition.
Can you prevent mental illness?
There’s no reliable way to prevent a mental illness from occurring. But a
The concept of prevention is complex because many factors go into someone developing a mental health condition in the first place.
Mental illnesses develop due to a combination of factors, including:
- brain chemistry
- environmental factors
- social determinants of health
- early childhood experiences such as trauma or abuse
- personality traits
- other coexisting health conditions
- substance misuse
If I’m not happy, is my mental health poor?
Sometimes, mental health is defined with many positive descriptions, making it seem like someone with “good” mental health copes well with stressors and always feels happy or upbeat.
You can be sad without having poor mental health, and you can be sad without having a mental illness.
Just as your physical health changes over time, so does your mental health. What helps you cope with stress and take care of yourself will change — and that’s OK.
Many people face hard times that affect their mental well-being. Periods of good mental health then follow these.
A good first step for supporting your mental health involves discovering coping skills that work well for you. These might include:
- meditation or mindfulness practices
- using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques like reframing
- deep breathing exercises
- moving your body in some way (stretching, going for a walk, etc.)
- listening to music
- treating yourself to something nice after getting through something challenging
- engaging in activities you find meaningful and enjoyable, like volunteering or gardening
- spending time with friends and loved ones
When trying out different coping skills, it’s OK to move on to trying something else if something doesn’t feel effective!
Other ways to support your mental health include:
- Taking breaks and unwinding: Make sure to avoid burnout by taking breaks, taking time off from work, and finding small moments to unwind and de-stress.
- Maintaining good physical health: Practicing good nutrition, exercise, and sleeping habits can help you feel better both mentally and physically. Eating and sleeping well may also help on days when you’re feeling low.
- Getting outside: There are physical and mental benefits to spending more time in nature. Even a brief walk outside can boost your well-being. If the weather isn’t great, you could still try sitting at a window and watching the outside world for a bit.
- Finding your support system: Whether your support system is family, friends, your community, a pet, or a combination of these and more, knowing who your support system is and reaching out to them is important. Social isolation can worsen mental health and make you feel alone. You’re not alone.
- Going to therapy: Some people think therapy is only for someone with a mental health condition or that once they start, they have to talk with a therapist for the rest of their lives. You can talk with a therapist for as long or as little as you like. Therapy can benefit just about anyone. Learn more about its benefits.
- Reaching out to a professional: If you believe you might have symptoms of a mental health condition, a healthcare professional can help. They can screen you for a condition, refer you to a mental health professional, and suggest treatment options like medication, psychotherapy, and more.
Mental health is not mental illness. Mental health is your health and well-being. It can be great, poor, or somewhere in the middle.
Many people experience ups and downs in their mental health, but it doesn’t mean they have a mental illness.
A mental illness is a health condition. Each mental health condition has its criteria for reaching a diagnosis.
If you believe you might have a mental health condition, or your mental health feels like it’s changed, you’re not alone. You can find support in learning daily coping tools, taking care of your physical health, and contacting a professional for support or therapy.