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What’s in a Name? Mental Health vs Mental Illness at Work

What's in a name, mental health vs mental illness (resized)-1

The terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are often used interchangeably in the workplace. And I’ve been wondering whether that matters? Okay, full disclosure - in my estimation it does matter.

Three reasons it matters -

One - They have different meanings
According to the World Health Organisation, Mental Health is ‘a state of wellbeing in which an individual:

  • Realises his or her own potential
  • Can cope with the normal stresses of life
  • Can work productively and fruitfully, and;
  • Is able to make a contribution to her or his community’

Mental Illness is:

A recognised, medically diagnosable illness that results in a significant impairment of a person’s:

  • Cognitive
  • Affective
  • Relational abilities [1]

Two 'Mental health is inclusive
Whilst (only) 1 in 5 of us at any one time will be experiencing a mental illness, the term mental health applies to us all. Moreover, you may not have thought about it like this but it is possible to be mentally healthy and managing a mental illness at the same time. Think of a well- functioning person you know or have seen at an event recently who has shared that they currently experience a mental illness and are managing it effectively. They likely have the support of a health professional, and take care of their mental health with activities such as regular exercise, healthy eating habits, good sleep patterns, maintaining strong social connections etc.

With physical health, you can feel a bit poorly or unwell without having an actual physical illness. You know you are not going to be fully productive and functional so you might take an aspirin, take the day off and spend it resting in bed. Likewise, mental health fluctuates too. You can feel a bit down, stressed, or overwhelmed without having a mental illness. Again, just like when you are physically poorly, how you think, feel and behave will be affected.

Socially, we are getting better at taking steps to maintain and optimise our physical health and actively look after it.  But we don’t yet take good enough care of our mental health in the same way. Unlike with our physical health (for most of us), we are more likely to ignore signs and symptoms related to our mental health. Furthermore, we know that being in better physical shape is protective against diseases and other physical ill-health conditions. The same is true mentally. Prevention is better than cure.

 Three - Language shapes meaning and understanding
The words we use help us make sense of our experience and the experiences of those around us.

We hear words bandied about like mental health ‘challenge’ or ‘issue’ or ‘problem’, ‘mental health condition’, ‘mental ill-health’, ‘mental health disorder’ and ‘mental distress’. What do they all mean? Well, it depends on what the user thinks they mean (and intends them to mean), plus what we the listeners happen to think they mean. Any of these terms could be used to refer to diagnosed mental illnesses (see mental illness definition above), or be used to capture a broader grouping of mental dysfunction including mental illness.

Perhaps using general-term language beyond the term mental illness is useful if it ultimately helps people recognise and identify an issue in themselves, and reach out for help earlier. We know from research that early help-seeking behaviours are associated with better health outcomes.

Space for another term?
At the risk of complicating things even more, may I bring in one of my favourites - psychological health. I like this because it frames a wide range of cognitive (mental) experience that’s relevant in the context of work. It encompass those brain functions necessary for high quality performance such as attentional focus, decision-making, working memory, emotional self-regulation and problem solving. Sometimes the phrase ‘psychological health and wellbeing’ is used, which is a kind of catch-all for the cognitive activity listed above, mental health and mental illness. It might also include physical health in with the ‘wellbeing’ bit. Note - a de-construction of the term ‘wellbeing’ is a conversation for another time!


  • If we can focus on making mental health more of a priority, talk more about mental health and how we can foster it in the workplace, we are more likely to create the organisational conditions that cultivate it AND take preventative measures that help stop mental illness episodes before they happen.
  • Mental health is complex and fluctuates for all of us. It’s not about feeling ‘happy’ and stress-free all the time. Going back to the WHO definition above, “coping with normal life stresses” requires both proactive and responsive actions, and a healthy dose of self-insight.
  • Taking a ‘mental health day’, going to see a Psychologist or phoning a loved one and asking for support might be just what your mental health needs some days, regardless of whether you have a mental illness or not.

What are your thoughts?

Should we collectively sharpen our meaning and word usage around mental health and illness, or alternatively be more flexible with our language?

What term do you use in your workplace, and is it helpful in talking about mental health at work and reducing any stigma around it?

[1] Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety


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