Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

April 25, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

People are more aware now than ever before of how important it is to talk about mental health and mental illness.

You might hear these terms more often. You might wonder what they mean or have questions: What’s the difference between mental health and mental illness? Is feeling sad or unhappy a sign of mental illness? How can I look after my mental health?

These are good questions to ask. Talking about mental health and mental illness is one way to lessen the shame some people feel because of stigma. Having an understanding about these subjects can help you have courageous conversations that show people no one needs to experience challenges alone.

What is mental health?

Like physical health, everyone has mental health. Physical health is the state of your body, and mental health is the state of your mind, feelings and emotions.

Like physical health, mental health is always there, and it’s fine to have good and bad days. Physical health can influence mental health, both positively and negatively. So can life experiences, work or school environment, relationships, and the type of community you live in.

Being mentally healthy enables you to feel, think and act in ways that help you enjoy life and cope with its challenges. Poor mental health may result in feeling unhappy, difficulty thinking clearly, or feeling overwhelmed by stressful situations.

Resiliency – the inner-strength you use to cope with stressful situations – is also a big part of mental health. To be resilient means you can effectively cope with ups and downs that are part of life.

Building resiliency can help you avoid being overwhelmed by stressful situations. This in turn further builds resiliency – it gives you the confidence to know you can get through difficult times when they come up again.

It’s important to give your mental health ongoing care and attention. There are things you can do to maintain good mental health, and other factors that influence mental health to learn about to help you build your understanding.

What is mental illness?

While mental health is always there and may be positive or negative, mental illness affects a person’s ability to function over a long period of time.

Mental illness is not the same as feeling sad, unhappy or stressed because of difficult situations such as the death of a loved one, job loss or breakup with a partner (although these events can contribute to mental illness). People with mental illness feel distressed regularly and may not feel in control of their lives.

Types and signs of mental illness

There are many different kinds of mental illness including:

Experiencing any of these illnesses can be very challenging, but mental illnesses can be treated. 

Mental illnesses usually start in adolescence or young adulthood and involve changes in behaviour, mood or thinking. Symptoms can vary. Generally, a person will experience significant distress or an inability to function over an extended time.

Anyone can develop a mental illness. Some risk factors that increase this chance are:

  • Family history of mental illness
  • Unresolved traumatic or abusive childhood experiences
  • Stressful life events, such as a loved one’s death, financial problems or divorce
  • Environmental influences on a fetus, such as exposure to drugs or alcohol
  • Social, economic or educational status

Where to get support for mental health or mental illness challenges

Because of the shame and blame sometimes associated with mental illness and mental health, many people feel like they can’t reach out for help. If you or a loved one is experiencing mental illness or mental health-related challenges, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.

For information and assistance around finding mental health or mental illness services, call 8-1-1 speak to a health service navigator.

Locate services near you using the HealthLink BC Service Finder.

Learn more:

Mental Health and Substance Use

Canadian Mental Health Association

Foundry BC

Government of Canada: Mental Illness

Government of Canada: Mental Health