Mental Illness vs. Mental Health – Distinction Makes A Difference

For nearly two decades I’ve been digging into this topic I’ve been fighting an uphill battle. Many people in the field agree there is a difference between Mental Illness (MI) and Mental Health (MH) but still, too often the two are grouped together and ultimately, it is the general population who suffers.

The fact is, while not everyone has a Mental Illness, every human must contend with their own Mental Health every day.

While any kind of stigma hurts everyone involved, I believe we can help the majority of the population improve their situation by distinguishing between MI and MH. In fact, I wonder if people with MI actually ARE more often getting the help they need while people struggling with MH ARE NOT due to the stigma around MI. Simply speaking:

Mental Illness results in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities. ( Source )


Mental Health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully. ( Source )

One way to distinguish MI and MH is by comparing Mental and Physical Illnesses and Health.

Examples of physical illness include the flu, scoliosis, heart attack, hepatitis, and malaria. When your physical health is struggling you may feel more tired than usual, lack energy, feel bloated or gassy after a meal, have headaches which may be related to dehydration and feel tired even after eight hours of sleep. With health, you’re not sick but you are operating sub-optimally.

To treat an illness you’ll likely visit a medical doctor. While to nurture your physical health you can exercise regularly, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, drink more water daily and get more restful sleep.

It may seem obvious to many of us, the difference between physical illness and health, but when it comes to MI and MH, the general public, media, and even healthcare professionals still rarely distinguish between the two.

To help illustrate the difference, below are a few common Mental Illnesses along with their frequency and description. (These numbers are easily sourced from an internet search.)

1. Schizophrenia (1.2% of US population)

A long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.

2. Bipolar (2.6% of US population)

Also known as manic depression is a mental illness that brings severe high and low moods and changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behavior. People who have bipolar disorder can have periods in which they feel overly happy and energized and other periods of feeling very sad, hopeless, and sluggish. In between those periods, they usually feel normal.

3. Psychopathic (1% of US population)

A person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.

4. Chronic Depression (6.7% of US population)

A chronic form of depression, dysthymia is characterized by depressed mood on most days for at least two years. On some days individuals may feel relatively fine or have moments of joy. But the good mood usually lasts no longer than a few weeks to months. Other signs include low self-esteem, plummeting energy, poor concentration, hopelessness, irritability and insomnia.

5. Multiple Personalities (~1% of US population)

Is characterized by the presence of two or more distinct and complex identities or personality states each of which becomes dominant and controls behavior from time to time to the exclusion of the others and results from a disruption in the integrated functions of consciousness, memory, and identity – called also dissociative identity disorder.

Now, let’s discuss a few examples in which someone’s Mental Health may be compromised and be sure to note how much more frequently people struggle with it. As you read through the examples below, reference the original definition for Mental Health and consider how they have played out in your life.

1. Stressed Out (>50% of working adults, APA-Stressed Out Nation)

  1. Too many projects, tasks, deadlines
  2. Too many demands for your time and attention
  3. Too many hurdles and issues to address
  4. Too much competition, distractions or unreasonable requirements

2. Burned Out (70% dream of a new job, ABC News; 63% extreme fatigue, USA Today Burnout)

  1. Extreme frustration and dissatisfaction without sufficient positive reinforcement
  2. Too often “fighting the system” without support or progress
  3. Repeating the same events/tasks without variation for too long
  4. Inadequate use of vacation or Paid Time Off (PTO)

3. Overworked (28% of working adults, ABC News)

  1. Working too many hours in a day
  2. Working too many days in a row
  3. Working too many weeks/months in a row
  4. Working on the same task/project for too long without a break or diversion

4. Overwhelmed (28% of working adults, ABC News)

  1. Managing too many projects/tasks or employees
  2. Managing too many “fires” and always reacting rather than preventing
  3. Dealing with an extreme or unreasonable deadline or demand
  4. Dealing with non-work related events too frequently

Given the prevalence of poor Mental Health (and not physical health) let’s see how it can affect you in the workplace and your organization, at large.

  • Culture Deteriorates – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues can put you in a “bad mood” which has also been shown to be contagious so the overall workplace environment turns toxic.
  • Engagement Decreases – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues can leave a person with little to no drive or motivation to continue doing what they’re doing – work. This is why more than 2/3 of the US workforce reports being disengaged.
  • Productivity Decreases – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues can make it difficult to concentrate and focus on a task resulting in far less productivity.
  • Absenteeism Increases – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues can often result in an employee simply “calling in sick” and taking a personal day. This may be the healthiest way to address poor Mental Health – simply take a break!
  • Presenteeism Increases – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues can result in someone showing up at work but simply not working. There are a myriad of ways to distract oneself from visiting with co-workers to surfing social media and the internet. Presenteeism costs companies orders of magnitude more than Absenteeism.
  • Retention Decreases – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues can easily result in a person simply leaving a job. When you drive a person beyond their limit, into a painful state, they’ll do almost anything to avoid it and in this case, quit.
  • Mistakes Increase – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues affect a person’s ability to concentrate and focus and that’s when mistakes happen with greater frequency.
  • Happiness Decreases – Any of the above Mental HEALTH issues increase the negativity in a person’s life which directly leads to feeling unhappy.

I hope I’ve explained the distinct difference between Mental Illness and Mental Health in a way you can use and share in your daily life. My hope is this explanation will also help reduce the stigma around both so we can continue the conversations and get the help and support WE ALL NEED.

Poor Mental Health has reached epidemic levels worldwide. People suffering from Mental Illness is still an issue but far less pervasive. Once we acknowledge and understand the core issue identifying and implementing solutions are far more effective.

What’s really going on in your world and at your organization? What has a greater impact on success or the “bottom line”? How can your wellness program achieve the most uncoerced support and earn the greatest return?

Please let me know what you think by “liking” and “commenting” and if you feel this article can help a friend – caring is “sharing”.


Kevin Strauss
Kevin Strauss
Kevin believes people yearn to feel closer to others. Not to everyone but to the people who matter most to them. He believes we long to be heard and valued because then we know we matter and that makes us happy. Happy people do good things and are less destructive to themselves and others. The closer and happier we are the better our world will be. Kevin is the Founder and CEO of Uchi, an app dedicated to helping people connect authentically with those who matter most to them by making conversations easier. Kevin’s career began as an "industry disruptive" Biomedical Engineer with a gift for identifying a problem’s root cause. His efforts have resulted in 75+ US patents and many peer-reviewed publications spanning several industries including spinal implants, psychology and behavior modification. It was nearly 20 years ago when Kevin wandered down a rabbit-hole, sparked by “human conflict”, that transformed him into an emotional health, connection, and human behavior expert. Now, Kevin and his team are bringing the Uchi app to the world’s stage to help people experience deeper and more meaningful relationships; something that matters to us all but often falls through the cracks. In addition, he continues to enjoy sharing this knowledge through workshops and speaking engagements. Kevin enjoys balancing his human connection work with expedition backpacking, ballroom dancing and as an 18-year, injury-free, Ironman Triathlete, and Coach.

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