The difference between mental health and illness

The month of October has been declared Mental Health Awareness month with the objective of not only educating the public about mental health but also to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness are often subjected to.

Mental health and mental illness are increasingly used as if they mean the same thing but they do not. When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about our mental well-being: our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections and our understanding of the world around us. A mental disorder or illness affects the way people think, feel, behave or interact with others. There are many different mental illnesses that can have different symptoms that impact people’s lives in different ways. Mental health professionals can provide clinical diagnosis and prescribe medications to help treat the illness.

Just as someone who feels unwell may not have a serious illness, people may experience poor mental health without a mental illness. We all have times when we feel a bit down, stressed out or overwhelmed by something that is happening in our lives. It’s also possible to experience good mental health even with a diagnosis of a mental illness. This is because mental illnesses (like other health issues) can be episodic, meaning there are times of ill health and times of better or good health.

There are steps you can take to maintain good mental health. For example, exercise has been proven to improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, negative mood and social withdrawal and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.

In my own experience, I am naturally an anxious person but I realise that it would peak during high-stress periods in my life. I take extra precautions to take care of myself during these times by eating a healthy, balanced diet, resting and expressing myself to a loved one in a safe place.

Despite some remaining societal stigma, mental health conditions are no one’s fault or a sign of personal weakness. They are illnesses like any other—a sore throat, diabetes, heart disease. And they are manageable and treatable with appropriate care. Please take control of your health and seek help if you are struggling with your mental state. Counselling and other forms of treatment are available and can help.

Visit the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG) for suicide crisis and mental health support:
0800 567 567

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