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Mental Illness vs. Mental Wellness - What's the difference?

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

We’ve been taught to believe that there are those of us with mental health issues, (mental illness), and those of us without. Ironically, that's not at all how we view physical health.

If you do a quick online search for physical health, you will see images of people exercising, stretching, drinking water, and looking strong and healthy. Online, we are told that physical health equates to physical health with happiness.

Yet, an online search for mental health focuses on the lack of health, offering graphics of brains, definitions of mental illness, and instructions about how to feel better. The images offered are of people crying, raging, or looking terrified. While this is a piece of what it looks like to struggle with mental health, it doesn’t do us any justice in understanding it.

Physical health differs from one person to the next. Some people are physically healthier than others, depending on their genetics, environmental exposures, etc. Similarly, we have varying degrees of mental health, depending on our family of origin, childhood experiences, etc. We don’t judge people who have asthma, arthritis, or cancer, yet we judge others, and ourselves, for having anxiety, depression, or addiction.

The idea of physical wellness has become widely popular in today’s culture. From keto to cross-fit, it’s cool to take control of your physical well-being. Let's flip the script from mental health to mental wellness. The reality is that mental health is complex, but merely because the entire human experience is complex.

There are things we all know to do to improve or maintain our physical health and will go to the doctor if we can't figure it out with the help of Google. However, when we don’t feel well mentally, we get stuck. If we break our leg, we don't plop ourselves on the couch, force ourselves to think really positive, indulge in a glass (or bottle) of wine, or scroll through our phone to watch the highlight reels of everyone else’s life, expecting that when we wake up tomorrow, our leg will no longer be broken. Yet, that’s a common response when our heart is broken.

Being human is hard, and each one of us is carrying something. Many of you are carrying an insurmountable weight of, well, life. Some of you are struggling financially, with your marriage, your health, or your teenager. Life is happening for all of us, and not every human experience is worthy of a mental health diagnosis. We all have mental health, and we all need to protect it.

How are you protecting your mental health as intentionally as you are your physical health?


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