What’s the difference between Mental Health and Mental Illness?

By Louise Hallett

There has been so much focus on Mental Health and Mental Wellbeing in recent years; many people have commented to us that we launched our charity at a good time, because of this increased coverage that the press have been giving to these issues. BUT – all the focus has been on wellbeing and how to look after our own mental health and the mental wellbeing of people in the workplace; educating teachers in how to spot abuse and trauma in children so it can be addressed and dealt with before it develops into longer term problems – and so on. All this is very important of course, but it leaves the issue of longer-term mental illness out of the conversation altogether, and this is a problem for a number of reasons.

We all know the difference between physical health and physical illness – that seems obvious. But the distinction between mental health and mental illness in every day parlance is not so easily defined – perhaps it’s just a language thing?

Mental Illness is a societal problem, not just a problem for those who have lived experience. Families and carers with loved ones who suffer from enduring mental health challenges, adults who live with long term mental distress in its many forms, have their lives dominated by this. For years, parents have been fighting with the system, in attempts to get the much-needed treatment, care and support for their loved ones. It’s increasingly difficult to get help when it’s asked for. Only at the point of crisis is there a chance that someone will listen – and crisis can often result in a Section Order and hospitalisation on a Mental Health ward, at a cost to the tax payer of £3,000 a week. Increasingly, if someone is in crisis, the police are called to deal with the situation. No crime may have been committed but a vulnerable, confused, ill person is held in a police cell because there is nowhere else available for them to go. If a crime has been committed, they are subjected to the Criminal Justice process, too often being punished for having an illness, rather than receiving treatment and support for their condition. Mental wellbeing on the other hand, is something we all need to be aware of in our lives; how to deal with stress, bereavement, depression, anxiety, worry. This is part of being human and it’s something that families and carers of those who suffer from enduring mental illnesses deal with every day; indeed their lives are dominated by these constant anxieties and worries. It’s something they have to learn to live with.

And yet, do we ever read about these distinctions in the press? Yes we do, when crimes are committed, and then understandably the focus is on the victim, and the vulnerable perpetrator of such crimes is somewhat unsurprisingly criticised and vilified. It gives a terrible reputation to sufferers of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and adds to the stigma of how we view mental illness. Often given the label of being schizophrenic, the condition becomes the person’s identity, which of course should not be the case. This may simply be someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia for which they have received inadequate support and treatment. The person is still there inside, but with an illness that, left untreated, affects their behaviour. People who suffer from long-term physical illnesses are not defined by their illness in this way. They receive sympathy, treatment and care – as they should. But so should those who suffer from mental illnesses.

To quote The Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn – “Let’s stop pretending people with serious psychosis can be fully independent, and give them the support they need”.