Do You Know The Difference Between Mental Health And Mental Illness?

Often, it’s just so damn confusing working out what people are talking about when they discuss mental health issues in the workplace. We use so many terms in organisations these days to discuss issues around mental health and wellbeing. On many occasions, I hear many different terms used but often in the wrong context and with obvious poor understanding as to what the terms mean. Just consider, there’s mental health, positive mental health, wellbeing, poor mental health, mental illness, mental disorder, flourishing, thriving, languishing. You can see why it’s easy for people to get confused.

Mental Health and Mental Illness are often terms that are used interchangeably.

Mental Health and Mental Illness are not the same thing; but they are also not mutually exclusive.

A fundamental difference between mental health and mental illness is that everyone has some level of mental health all of the time, just like physical health, whereas it is possible to be without mental illness.

Take a look at Keyes Mental Health Continuum. It helps make a lot more sense of all the relative terms.

Poor mental health and mental illness has a significant impact within not only society, but within organisations. Just consider some of the statistics.

•         In 2014 – The Australian Psychological Society review indicated 44% of Australians identified work as a source of stress.

•         SafeWork SA has identified that Mental Health Claims are the most expensive WorkCover claims.

•         At any given time, 1 out of every 5 employees is likely to be experiencing poor mental health or mental illness.

•         Poor Mental Health costs Australian businesses 10 Billion dollars per year in lost productivity (4.7 billion due to absenteeism and 6.1 billion due to presenteeism)

So let’s be clear.

Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Positive Mental health refers to positive emotional, psychological and social wellbeing that can enhance functioning in life.(Flourishing, Thriving)

Poor Mental Health is when an individual does not experience a mental illness, but nevertheless is languishing. We often refer to this as significant levels of stress.

Mental Illness is a recognised, medically diagnosable illness where symptoms are present for greater than 2 weeks and result in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities.

So when we consider opportunities to build Mental Toughness we are really looking at building skills to allow individuals, teams and organisations to thrive, not just survive. The goal is to experience not only mental health, but flourishing and thriving in the face of stressors and adversity. We need to be more than just resilient and bounce back from adversity. We need to thrive.

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Leadership and Wellness Coach and Speaker / Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a Certified Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness Practitioner.  Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.  You can find her at or