Mental Illness vs. Mental Health: The Difference and Why it Matters in the Workplace

Mental health vs mental IllnessThe terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are often though of and used interchangeably. Unless you are a psychotherapist or some other practitioner in the field, you probably don’t think much about the difference between the two or aren’t even aware that there is a difference. But when it comes to how well we work with others, our productivity, and our happiness on the job, knowing the difference could make a lot of difference.

‘Mental illness’ refers to a recognized, diagnosed disorder. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, (DSM-5), ‘mental illness’ is defined specifically as “a syndrome characterized by 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.” Along with this definition are myriad lists of conditions that must be met for each syndrome or illness, and the requirements to make a diagnosis and recommendation for treatment.

‘Mental health’ on the other hand, speaks to our mental well-being; the full spectrum of emotions, thoughts and feelings, and whether they’re good or bad. Mental health refers to our level of happiness, fulfillment and joy; how we feel about ourselves, how well we manage problems and overcoming difficulties and stressful events, the nature of our social relationships, and our interactions with what’s happening in our world.

Not everyone will will diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime. But just as with physical health, everyone has ‘mental health.’ And just like physical health, how mentally healthy we are has a great deal to do with how well we manage the day-to-day activities in our lives including how well we do our jobs.

Because so many people think of the two terms in the same way, we are often unaware of the impact of poor mental health on our lives and at work. While physical illness is common and understandable, mental health is often ignored.

Someone who feels unwell or sick may not have a serious illness, but it still affects their job performance. Perhaps it’s a cold or flu; a headache or a stomach bug. By and large, we recognize the symptoms and take steps to improve our condition. It may require seeing a doctor for an antibiotic or just taking aspirin. It may also mean taking a day at home to recover. Whatever the case, we accept that a physical illness often makes it hard to perform at our best.

Poor mental health however, and its impact, is often overlooked or ignored. Stress from problems at home may leave a person feeling anxious or sad. Communication problems in a relationship can cause a person to be distracted, angry, and impatient while at work. Worrying about a sick child, a recent tragedy or the loss of a loved-one can be so emotionally impacting that a person can’t work at all. These and countless other situations affect how we think and behave, and can greatly affect how well we do our jobs.

But whereas we recognize physical illness and take steps to fix things, when it comes to our mental health, we too often ignore it thinking either those things will just get better eventually, or they won’t get better and that’s just the way it is. Because we don’t understand what metal health is, and because we mistakenly believe that mental health and mental illness is the same, we don’t take steps to get mentally healthier.

Someone who feels unwell may not have a serious physical illness. Likewise, people can have poor mental health without a clinical mental illness. Everybody experiences times in their lives when they feel down, or stressed out, or overwhelmed by something that’s happening. Maintaining good mental health means having the ability to think about and address problems or concerns in a ways that are positive. Good mental health isn’t about feeling happy and confident all of the time and ignoring the problems. It’s about living and coping well despite problems.

And just as we sometimes need to take steps to address a physical health problem, there are times when it makes sense to take steps to address a mental health problem. The hard part for many people to accept is that getting help to improve our mental health often looks the same as the steps we’d take for a mental illness – that is, talking to a therapist or counselor. “Seeing a counselor” for many people is the same as admitting they have a mental illness.

When the problem we want to fix is: how we feel about, and responding to, the things that are happening in our lives, the only solution is either to change what’s happening or change how we’re thinking and responding to what’s happening. Often, whether at home or on the job, we don’t have control over what happens. So learning new ways to think about the problems and stresses in our lives can go a long way to improving our mental health, our emotions and responses, and thus the happiness in our lives and our productivity on the job.

Professional therapists do more than treat mental illness. They can also teach ways of thinking that can improve communications in both personal and professional relationships. They can teach ‘mindfulness,’ a technique for remaining ‘in the moment’ and focused on what’s positive and good now. They can teach ways for understanding how our thoughts affect our behavior – including our emotional responses – so our actions and reactions are more productive. These and other techniques can improve our mood, focus, improve sleep, and greatly improve how well we manage and solve problems. In the simplest sense, learning how to think differently can make us happier.

To improve our mental health we must first understand what mental health means and how it affects us every day; at work and at home. Improving mental health also means accepting that, just like with physical health, mental health professionals can help us to ‘get better’ by providing tools that we wouldn’t know about on our own. For physical health, the tools are often medications and physical therapies. For mental health, the tools are therapies and techniques that help us to think and respond differently to certain situations and feelings.

Anyone can learn new techniques and apply these tools to improve how they think, feel and react to the stressors in life. For most people, the barriers to feeling better is to first admit our mental health could improve, and then being willing to ask for help.