Mental Health vs. Mental Illness: Is it the same?

When we talk about our mental health, we’re essentially talking about our mental well-being in general, and this would encompass quite a number of domains; Firstly, we would be referring to our emotions or our ability to feel happy or sad in relevant situations. A balance in this domain is very important and an imbalance would be a good tell-tale sign that we may be struggling with our mental well-being. Mental well-being would also include our thoughts and feelings. Are our thoughts distorted or debilitating to our behaviours in any way? Do we have any obsessive thoughts that keep repeating itself over and over? Or are they appropriate? Besides that, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties in our day-to-day lives is another important domain of mental health. Are we able to bounce back from adversities or do we find ourselves getting stuck in the negative effects of those problems and we can’t seem to get ourselves out? Another important factor when it comes to mental health would be to understand what our social connections are like. Do we have healthy relationships with the individuals around us? Or do we find that we are slowly starting to isolate from these interactions and would rather be alone? And last but certainly not least, and also the trickiest to identify would be our worldview, or how we perceive the world around us. For example, do we believe that there are still good people in the world despite there being crimes or do we believe that every single individual in this world is bad and that the world is a horrible place? In other words, we could be overgeneralizing when in reality, less than a fraction of this world’s population are committing crimes. 

Now that we have an overview of what constitutes mental health, let’s look at what it means to have a mental illness. By definition, a mental illness is an illness that affects the way we think, feel, behave, or interact with others. In other words, it involves changes in our emotions, thoughts, or behaviours (or a combination of all three) which would impact our functioning in our personal or professional lives. There are many different mental illnesses that have been identified according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and they each have different symptoms that would impact our lives in different ways. For example, an individual who may be experiencing depression may go through changes in their diet or sleep pattern, have problems concentrating, and may also be exhibiting harmful behaviours that could potentially endanger their lives. These symptoms are more severe than the changes that we go through when having struggles with our mental well-being as they start to interfere with our ability to function and may start to impact our quality of life. 

It’s important to note that health lies on a continuum, and we can all have great or good health, to poor or ill health. For example, some of us may have good health and have no problems in going about our day-to-day activities and careers. However, some of us may have serious health problems which would end up having a negative impact in our lives. Mental health follows the exact same pattern. Just like an individual who feels unwell may not have a serious physical illness, individuals can also have poor mental health from time to time without having a serious mental illness. We all have days where we feel a bit blue or stressed out, be it with our personal chores or professional chores. It happens to the best of us. But what’s important is our ability to view our problems as a part of our reality. Having good mental health is not about feeling happy 24/7 (remember, balance!), rather it’s about being able to cope well enough with our problems without letting it take over our lives.

AskPsychologist is an online psychologist in KL, conceived to bridge the gap between mental health professionals and Malaysians. If you feel that you want to speak to someone about your struggles and obstacles, we provide mental health services in Malaysia

“Mental health is not a destination, but a process. It's about how you drive, not where you're going.” – HealthyPlace.com

Written by: Kiranjeet Kaur (MPS Psychological Services Intern)


Benton, S. (2018). The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/reaching-across-the-divide/201804/the-difference-between-mental-health-and-mental-illness

Parekh, R. (2018). What is Mental Illness? American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness

Westerhof, G. J., & Keyes, C. L. M. (2009). Mental Illness and Mental Health: The Two Continua Model Across the Lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17(8), 110-119. doi:10.1007/s10804-009-9082-y


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