Mental Health vs Mental Illness

by Robyn Tamanaha, LMFT

The terms mental health and mental illness are used as if they are the same thing; however, these refer to separate concepts and have different definitions.

What is the difference?

Mental health refers to overall health and well-being. This can include the following:

  • The degree of happiness of an individual
  • If an individual feels fulfilled in different areas of their life
  • How well an individual copes with difficulties
  • How an individual thinks and feels about themselves

Everyone has a certain level of mental health. The level of mental health can also vary amongst individuals.

Mental illness refers to a diagnosable condition that causes extreme distress or makes it difficult for an individual to function in major areas of their life, such as work, school, relationships, or how well the individual takes care of themselves. Some examples of mental illnesses are:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Trauma disorders
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance-related disorders
  • Personality disorders

Although common, some more so than others, not everyone experiences mental illness.

Both mental health and mental illness can be worked on and improved upon. Therapy can address both mental health and mental illness, which is why individuals come to therapy for either, or both.

What does this look like in therapy?

Individuals who come to therapy to improve upon mental health might want to:

  • Increase satisfaction or fulfillment in their personal life or relationships with others
  • Learn skills to make healthier choices or decisions that are guided by their values
  • Processing or working through a stressful event, life circumstance, or major change

Individuals who come to therapy due to mental illness might want to:

  • Process past and present experiences with symptoms and address how to move forward
  • Discuss and explore what to do with symptoms when they appear
  • Gain strategies so that the symptoms do not hinder functioning at work, in relationships, or at school
  • Explore and practice ways to take care of oneself before, during, and after symptoms occur

Whether you are living with mental illness, or wanting to work on your mental health, therapy can help. You don’t have to be in crisis to receive therapy; noticing that something has been on your mind and bothering you in some way is reason enough to meet with a therapist.  If you feel it, then it matters. These indications are your body and mind sending you an alert to reach out for help.

Don’t wait to get the help you need.  If you would like to take the next step towards finding a therapist, contact Ethera to get matched with a provider.


About the Author:  Robyn Tamanaha is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, writer, and podcaster. She has a private practice in Orange County, CA and is the host of the podcast Books Between Sessions.