What’s the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Published: July 26, 2021

From time to time, I hear people using the terms mental health and mental illness interchangeably. While the line between them is not crystal clear, they are definitely not one and the same thing. There is a difference between mental health and mental illness. Once we understand this difference, then we know when it’s time to seek help as well as the signs and symptoms to watch out for.

So that you don’t get confused by these two terms, I am going to make it as clear as possible. Next time you mention that someone has a mental illness, you are going to be talking from a point of knowledge. For truth be told, if it were not for ignorance, among other things, of course, we wouldn’t be having as many people as we have struggling with mental health and mental illnesses in Kenya today. Statistics show that a staggering one in every four people who visit health facilities in Kenya has a mental health condition. It’s scary and disturbing to say the least.

So, what’s mental health?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines mental health as what includes  “Our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”

We can deduce from the above definitions that our mental health is the state that reflects our emotions, thoughts, and henceforth affecting the actions we take. If these emotions and thoughts affect your relationships with others and your decision making processes, that means your mental health is not okay. However, you can’t yet say that you have a mental illness.

Just like with physical health, your mental health can be okay or poor. You can tell whether your mental health is okay or poor if you pay close attention to your thought patterns and feelings. Needless to mention that anybody can have poor mental health regardless of their status, age, and gender. 

Signs and symptoms of poor mental health

It’s always good to be on the lookout for the signs and symptoms of mental health so that you can seek help as early as possible. Because if ignored, poor mental health deteriorates leading to mental illness. 


Loss of employment, death of a loved one, sickness and broken relationships are some factors that can make us feel sad. This sadness might affect how we go about our daily duties and even how we relate with those around us. For instance, it might affect your ability to focus on your studies or affect your productivity at work. 


At some point in life, we all have felt anxious. It could be that you got a new job, you are waiting for an interview or are wanting to invest a huge chunk of money in a business. These are things that are likely to make you feel anxious and some degree of anxiety is normal. However, if your anxiety is skyrocketing and you can hardly do things you used to do in the blink of an eye, it’s time to see a psychologist.

Unexplained fatigue

You have been having eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, you have been resting enough but still feel tired? It could have something to do with your mental health. Stress, feeling overwhelmed, change of eating habits, keeping to yourself and struggling to do things you used to do before are also signs of poor mental health.

As long as these signs and symptoms are affecting your day-to-day life, reach out for help from a psychologist. A psychologist is able to provide the needed treatment as per the problem at hand which usually involves psychotherapy also known as talk therapy.  Like we mentioned earlier, if not addressed early enough, poor mental health can graduate into a mental illness which is harder to treat.

What’s mental illness?

By now, you already have an idea of what mental illness is, right? Unlike mental health which is a state that reflects our emotions and thoughts, a mental illness is a condition that affects our emotions, thoughts and actions. This condition may be occasional or pro-longed (chronic). 

Examples of mental illnesses include depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and post traumatic stress disorder. Signs and symptoms of mental illness vary depending on the specific condition that one has. 

Some common signs and symptoms of mental illness include;

  • Weight fluctuations
  • Drugs and substance abuse
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Self harming thoughts
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness
  • Crying spells
  • Severe anxiety
  • Hearing voices
  • Losing touch with reality (hallucinations)
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you or a loved one has these signs, be sure to get help. If they are diagnosed with a mental illness, then a psychiatrist will treat them. Treating a mental illness may combine psychotherapy as well as medications such as antidepressants and antipsychotics. The treatment also varies depending on the mental condition the patient is suffering from.

Stigma on mental health and mental illness

How many times do we lose loved ones to suicide only to later learn that the deceased was battling a mental illness like depression? The stigma is so much that people are afraid of seeking help. In our society, you might be labeled as weak if people know that you are depressed. It’s even worse for our men who, from a young age, are taught that “men should be strong”. 

If one has a mental condition like schizophrenia, people say they are mad, bewitched, or a curse has befallen them. All this ignorant and negative talk prevents people from seeking help since they don’t want to be victimized by society. But what if we all realized that mental health is as paramount as physical health and there is nothing wrong with going to a psychologist or a psychiatrist when you are unwell? I mean, we would save a lot of relationships and lives. 

We all have a part to play when it comes to mental health and mental illness in our society. First, let’s normalize seeking help like we do when we have a physical illness. Secondly, both you and I can all have a mental health problem and it has nothing to do with being a weak person. . Finally and most importantly, you have a role and a responsibility to work on your mental health. Make it a priority to always ensure that your mental health is well taken care of.

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