Mental Health vs Mental Illness

All of us experience mental health challenges at various times in our lives – it is part of the human condition – and these days it can seem like it’s an epidemic.

However, in our cultures, we have a lot of misunderstandings and stigma associated with mental health and mental illness.  One of the strange things we have going on in our culture is that if I say “Physical Health” no one bats an eyelid; but as soon as I say “Mental Health”, we all go ‘mental’. We need to correct that response from the start.

Let’s look at the differences between mental health vs mental illness so that we might be able to recognize when someone may be struggling with their mental health at work in particular; but these signs show up in our personal lives as well.

Then I’ll touch on what we can do once we see these key indicators.

What is mental health?

As defined by the World Health Organisation, Mental Health is a state of wellbeing and happiness, where we have good positive relationships, we utilise our potential, deal with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and make a contribution in our society.

Right here, you could create a wellbeing or happiness self-assessment or ‘check up’ on your mental health by giving yourself a score out of 20 on each of the areas that constitute sound Mental Health.

For example:

  • Good Positive Relationships 18/20

  • Utilise my potential  15/20

  • Deal with the normal stresses of life 16/20

  • Work productively 15/20

  • Make a contribution to society 15/20

    This score would be 79 out of 100 = 79% Mental Health or Wellbeing or Happiness

This gives us a numerical picture of the state of our mental health, and areas in which we may be able to improve. 

This clarifies Mental Health from a high level perspective, and the fields of Positive Psychology, Emotional Intelligence, Wellbeing & Happiness, Meditation and Mindfulness can provide a rich deepening of this understanding and its application in our daily lives.

But let’s look at what mental illness is.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a diagnosable condition that causes major changes to thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This can impair functioning and is persistent over time. The last major survey completed in 2007 in Australia identified that 20% of Australian’s experience a diagnosable mental illness. This consisted of 14% Anxiety Disorder, 6% Depressive Disorder, 5% Substance Use Disorder and 0.5% Psychosis. While that adds up to 25.5%, there is a lot of co-occurrence and co-morbidity, as it’s referred to.


How can we Correlate Mental illness with Physical illness?

As with any illness of the body, there are varying degrees of severity with mental illness. 

The brain is a body part like any other body part. 

For example, if you take the lungs and airway passages, a lot of people suffer a mild lung problem like hay fever or colds or flu. Others might have a more severe condition such as asthma, and a serious lung illness is Bronchitis or Emphysema. On one end of the continuum we have a lung problem, on the other end we have a lung illness

It’s the same with stress and our brains. The mental or emotional challenges we face when exposed to stressors challenge us in different forms. People might be really stressed to stand up in public and give a presentation; but this is very different to a mental illness caused by a significant trauma experience such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or a very serious illness such as drug induced Psychosis or Schizophrenia.

What are the findings with PTSD?

In the US, the Army asked the question, “Why is it that we have thousands of men and women who see combat; but only a small percentage who experience the symptoms of PTSD?” What they found is that there is a high correlation of PTSD and childhood trauma.


What’s beginning to come to light in the psychiatry and psychology worlds, is vast numbers of adolescent and adult mental and emotional illnesses are informed by adverse childhood experiences. [1]. This is developing a new approach in healthcare which is not “What’s wrong with you?” But rather, “What happened to you?”

As we begin to understand the impact of our previous experiences, and become much more understanding about what people have been through, we can be much more understanding of what they’re struggling with. The brain is just another body part that has suffered injury.

What are the key indicators of Mental Illness in the Workplace?

 Typically, first we would see an increase in sick days or leave. When a person battling with poor mental health is at work, they might start to struggle to get things done.

The three major stress responses are:

Mental Health in the workplace.jpg
  1. Fight…which is usually blaming others, bullying, finding fault or making wrong

  2. Flight…which is personal shaming. “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough, no one cares about me.”

  3. Freeze…numbing out, going through the motions, not present or caring.

Blame and shame are happening all the time, and the difficult thing is that either way, the person thinks they’re right. That’s why both professional help, and support from bosses, colleagues and loved ones is so important.

What do you do if you break your arm? Do you hang your head in shame and try to hide it from the world? “Oh this is terrible, what would my friends think, what am I going to do?”

No, off you go to a doctor and a specialist to have it treated.

However, for most of us, when we experience mental and emotional hurt and injury – such as the loss of a relationship, close friend or parent, loss of a job, money or status, we shame ourselves or we blame others. These are serious mental and emotional injuries that need the specialised support, care and rehab of a doctor, clinical psychologist or counsellor.

We need to stop the stigma, and reach out for the help of a specialist.

How do you approach your employee about their Mental Health?

The challenge for management is separating out the personal issues from the performance issues. If a person struggling with their mental health is pulled up on their performance, it all has a knock-on effect that can feed a sharp downward spiral.

For Managers to have a conversation regarding personal issues, this requires a caring conversation that is person-centered. Without training, it can be really difficult to broach this subject. As Managers we worry that we’re going to offend, play therapist, or stick our nose in someone else’s business; that’s why it’s easy to default to task and performance-based conversations.

There are key phrases to begin this line of communication and wording that should be avoided to have a truly empathetic conversation, that might help an employee open up, and increase their own awareness. The leader/manager needs to develop trust and safety – not easy if you haven’t been taught how to do it properly and authentically.

Remember, you’re speaking with a person who has the capacity to develop their own self-awareness with good conversation skills from you as a Manager. They don’t need you to tell them how to solve their problem


I have run over 75 workshops teaching Leaders, Managers, and Team Members how to have the right conversations. This training should be compulsory because it provides much-needed communication skills in our modern and demanding workplaces – giving you the practical, actionable skills and confidence to support people on your team who might be struggling with a mental health problem. With 1 in 5 Australian adults reportedly experiencing a common mental illness each year, it’s highly likely that you have at least one employee that could do with your support right now.

If you’d like to learn more about our Mental Health Skills workshops then please get in touch

[1]Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and the Risk of Attempted Suicide Along the Lifespan, JAMA, 26 December 2001.

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I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you have any questions about wellbeing, mental health and resilience skills – then I invite you to connect with me.

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