What Is the Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness?

Mental Health

Psychologist discussing the difference between mental health and mental illness with a patient
The difference between mental health and mental illness isn’t clear to many people. It’s easier to understand the difference when you treat them as separate entities. Mental health is about mental wellness - we all have mental health. Mental illness is when someone is diagnosed with a mental disorder. 

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is being socially, cognitively and emotionally healthy. To function to the best of our ability we need to address our mental health and treat mental illnesses if they occur. 

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can contribute to her or his community”. 

According to Beyond Blue, health experts have considered new terms for mental health to develop a clearer difference between mental health and mental illness. Terms being considered are ‘positive mental health’, ‘mental wellbeing’, and ‘subjective well being’.

What Does It Mean to Be Mentally Healthy? 

Don’t take your mental health for granted. Just like our physical health, we need to take action to stay happy and healthy. Fortunately, many things that are good for our physical health are also good for our mental health. 

Here are some ways you can stay mentally healthy:

Get More Sleep

Sleep and mental illness are linked. Studies have shown that sleep problems increase the risk of mental illness. Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to concentrate, learn and be resilient. Most adults need around eight hours of sleep each night to function and stay mentally healthy.  

Make Time for Yourself

It’s easy to keep busy looking after the needs of everyone else around you. But it’s important to do an activity you enjoy and are good at. Losing yourself in an activity lets you forget about worries for a while. Not only will your mental health benefit but your family and colleagues may enjoy your refreshed state.  

A woman in a park making time for herself and meditating

Be Active

Exercise keeps excess weight off and also gives you a mental boost. When we exercise, our brain releases endorphins and serotonin which help improve our mood. Regular exercise can also reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

Manage Stress

Almost everyone in the modern world feels stressed at some point. It’s part of life and doesn’t cause you harm if you keep it under control. If you struggle to wind down or manage your thoughts, find relaxation techniques that work for you. Some people use yoga, exercising or journal writing to relax and de-stress.   

Enjoy a Healthy Diet

What we eat affects our bodies and our brains. A poor diet can make us feel sluggish and increase the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Nutritious food gives us more energy, improves concentration and helps us get a better night’s sleep. 

Eating a healthy diet will help you stay mentally healthy

Build Up Your Confidence

Low self-esteem and self-confidence is a contributing factor to mental illness. Don’t compare yourself to others, be happy with who you are. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses so don’t dwell on your perceived weaknesses. If you ‘fail’ at something remind yourself you have strengths in other areas. 

Meet With Friends

Social isolation and poor relationships are risk factors for mental illness. Being social makes you less likely to suffer loneliness and feelings of isolation. You don’t need a big network of friends. Being part of a group of people with common interests or volunteering with a community group will give you a sense of belonging.  

Set Realistic Goals

Nothing gives you a boost as much as meeting a goal you’ve set yourself. Setting a goal gives you a purpose and working towards it takes courage, motivation and commitment. 

Even if you don’t meet the goal in the timeframe you set, be kind to yourself and celebrate the progress you made. Remember, success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. 

Ask for Help

Swallowing your pride and asking for help can be hard. There’s no shame in admitting you can’t do it all. Don’t wait for things to get any worse or for your stress to build before speaking out. Talk to a trusted friend and consult your GP or a mental health professional.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is a health problem that affects how a person thinks, behaves and interacts with others. Mental illness is a group of illnesses that are often diagnosed through standard criteria. The term ‘mental disorder’ refers to the same health problems. Around one in five Australians experience a mental illness.

Types of Mental Illness

Mental illness comes in many forms – each with their own symptoms and types of treatment.


Anxiety is the most common mental illness. Anxiety can impact on your ability to sleep, concentrate and do simple tasks.  

There are several types of anxiety:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder
  • Social Phobia 
  • Panic Disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Specific Phobias
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Symptoms of Anxiety 

Common symptoms of anxiety include frequently feeling worried, tense, on edge and nervous. If you’re having a panic attack, the symptoms are physical and include shortness of breath, a racing heart and dizziness. 

Physical symptoms of anxiety include shaking, sweating, rapid breathing, feeling weak, dry mouth, choking, diarrhoea, tense muscles, hot and cold flashes and stomach or chest pain. 

All anxiety disorders can be treated, so seek help from a professional.

A woman suffering from anxiety sitting alone on a couch


Depression is a serious condition that can affect your mental and physical health. Intense feelings of low mood and sadness are experienced for weeks or even years. It’s rare for depression to disappear on its own but effective treatments are available.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression can have physical symptoms. You may be sick regularly, experience muscle pain, a churning stomach, poor sleep, loss of appetite, experience changes in weight and headaches. 

Depression often impacts behaviour. You may withdraw from friends and family, have trouble completing tasks at school or work, not go out or do activities you used to enjoy or consume alcohol excessively. 

A depressed person may experience a range of feelings. You may be irritated, frustrated, sad, miserable, guilty, indecisive or overwhelmed. 


Schizophrenia affects how the brain works and can cause psychosis where a person can’t think properly and has a problem differentiating between what is real and not. Some people inherit schizophrenia while others acquire it following a brain injury, drug-taking or traumatic experience. The first episode usually occurs between the ages of 15 and 25 but can start later in life.  

Other similar illnesses include schizoaffective disorder and schizophreniform disorder.

Symptoms of Schizophrenia 

Symptoms may include hallucinations where the person sees or hears something that isn’t there. They may have beliefs that are not true (delusions).        

Diagnosis is difficult because there is no test or a particular sign. A psychiatrist needs to spend time with the patient collecting information because other mental illnesses have similar symptoms to schizophrenia. There is no cure for schizophrenia, but it is treatable with medication and psychological treatment.

A doctor diagnosing a patient for mental illness

Bipolar Mood Disorder

Bipolar disorders cause extreme shifts in mood. People with bipolar disorders go from elevated mood (known as mania) to depressive episodes that can last for weeks.  

There are three main types of bipolar:

Bipolar 1 – one manic episode with hypomanic or major depressive episodes before and after the manic episode. This type affects both men and women.

Bipolar 2 – a hypomanic episode that lasts four days and one depressive episode that lasts for at least two weeks. This type affects more women than men. 

Cyclothymia – episodes of hypomania and depression that are shorter and less severe than the mania and depression.

Symptoms of Bipolar Disorders

A person will usually show bipolar symptoms by the age of 25. Women are often diagnosed later and have milder episodes of mania but more depressive episodes. 

There is no cure for bipolar but there are treatments to help with managing symptoms. 

Personality Disorders

Personality Disorders are a long-term pattern of thinking, behaving and emotions that are extreme, making it difficult to function day to day. People with personality disorders struggle to adapt to different situations, working and forming relationships. Personality disorders often start in childhood and may result from childhood abuse, trauma or neglect. 

Symptoms of Personality Disorders

The symptoms include eccentric thinking or behaviour, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behaviour and anxiousness. If affects most parts of their life. They may also have other mental illnesses such as depression and substance abuse. 

Psychotherapy can help manage symptoms and help people relate more positively to others.

Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders are abnormal eating patterns that interfere with everyday life. If you have an eating disorder you worry about your body weight, appearance and food. Eating disorders can occur for a variety of reasons including biological, genetic, psychological, social or cultural. Girls and women are more at risk of developing an eating disorder than males. 

Having low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, depression, loneliness, being a perfectionist and having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse makes you at greater risk of developing an eating disorder. 

There are a few different eating disorders including:

  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Restrictive food intake

Symptoms of Eating Disorders

There’s a wide range of symptoms that point to an eating disorder. 

  • Fear of putting on weight and weighing yourself often
  • Restricting how much food you eat
  • Excessive exercising
  • Uncontrolled overeating
  • Taking laxatives
  • Making yourself vomit after eating
  • Lying about what you eat 
  • Often feeling cold or weak 

Treatment may involve eating healthy with other people, psychological treatment and medications. Recovery time can be up to five years for someone with anorexia nervosa.

What To Do If You Have a Mental Health Problem

Acknowledging you might be suffering from a mental health problem can be difficult. If you have experienced low, mood, anxiety or signs of depression, taking the step to get help and find support can be life-changing. 

Offering your support to friends and family when they are feeling mentally unwell can be life-changing

There are many resources and professionals available to help you feel better.  People affected by mental health problems can do the following:

  • See your GP to discuss your symptoms
  • Speak to a psychologist or counsellor
  • Do some exercise, it doesn’t need to be rigorous to give your mood a lift
  • Eat a well-balanced diet, it helps with your mental and physical health
  • Don’t overuse alcohol or other substances in the hope it makes you feel better
  • Recognise when you have negative thoughts and talk through them with a friend 
  • Think of things you enjoy doing and plan a time to do them

Where to Find Help if You Think You Have a Mental Illness

As well as a GP, psychologist or counsellor, there are organisations you can contact for advice or talk to someone who is trained to listen. Many of these organisations also have helpful online mental health resources.

Beyondblue– information and support for people with anxiety or depression. 

Call 1300 22 4636

Lifeline– 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services

Call 13 11 14

Kids Helpline– phone and online counselling service for 5-25-year-old people.

1800 55 1800

Black Dog Institute– understanding and treating mental illness.

No crisis support 

Suicide Call Back Service-  telephone and online counselling for people affected by suicide.

1300 659 467

If you or someone you know is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental illness, seek assistance from a healthcare specialist.

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

Category:Mental Health

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