Mental Health vs Mental Illness: What's the Difference? - man in long sleeve shirt with head down on kitcken table

Mental Health vs Mental Illness: What's the Difference?

Haeli Harris
May 26, 2021
October 9, 2022

Yes, there's a difference between mental health and mental illness! It is critical to know the difference. Mental health vs mental illness is a discrepancy every business executive should know.

Here's the difference between the two and why it matters for your business.  

The difference between mental health and mental illness

Here's the gist: mental health is something we all have. Mental illness falls under specific, diagnosable criteria.

Mental health, according to " includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices". We all have mental health, just like we all have physical health.

According to the APA, mental illness impacts a person's "thinking, emotion, and/or behavior", and leads to "distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities". Mental illnesses are diagnosable mental health issues. They are caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, the environment (emotional and physical), brain chemistry, and behavioral habits.

The most common mental illnesses in America are anxiety and depression.

About 26% of American adults face a diagnosable mental illness. Only half seek help. And nearly everyone deals with mental health challenges at some point in their lives.

The pandemic worsened mental health across the nation—and the impacts aren't going away. Employees and employers alike need to make it a point to stay connected and prioritize self-care.

Mental fitness: taking care of the mind

Just like we exercise our bodies to stay healthy, we need to exercise and care for the mind.

Mental health and mental illness are not constants—they change throughout a person's lifetime. People that struggle with depression often have long spans of time where they feel depressed, and times where they don't feel depressed. A devastating life event can make mental health a struggle for a long time, even if that person does not have a diagnosable mental health condition.

Regardless of the state of our mental health, we all need to take care of it—just like taking care of our bodies. Similar to how we go to the primary doctor for an annual check-up, it isn't a bad idea to meet with a therapist once per year to check in on your mental wellbeing.

So, what helps people become mentally fit?

  • Meditation—to learn how to stay grounded in reality, gain control over the mind, and let go of thoughts that aren't true
  • Deep breathing—to learn mindfulness and give your body the air it needs
  • Journaling—reflecting on your mental health challenges and tracking your progress
  • Talking about it—whether it's with a therapist, loved one, friend, or colleague
  • Building healthy habits—sleeping, eating, drinking, work-life balance, etc.
  • Routines—taking time to practice all of the above

Since the body and mind are connected, taking care of the body can help support the mind, and vice versa.

Common mental health challenges

There are some mental health challenges we all face. Here are a few causes of mental health struggles most people face at some point in their lives:

  • Stress
  • Self-image and self-esteem
  • Relationship struggles
  • Grief
  • Work-related issues
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Controlling emotions
  • Financial stressors

Common mental illnesses

Here are the most common diagnosable mental illnesses in the United States.

Anxiety disorders

About 18% of the population suffers from an anxiety disorder—making it the most common mental illness. Anxiety causes people to feel worried, fearful, or nervous most or all of the time. It can cause restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, poor sleep, tension, stomach pain, and shortness of breath.

Anxiety is very treatable. It is commonly treated through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Common anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

OCD and PTSD are also considered anxiety disorders (more on those later).


About 6% of the population suffers from depression at any given time. Depression can be triggered by a life event, or it can return repeatedly over a person's lifetime. Also called Major Depressive Disorder, depression is a very serious mental illness that can lead to tension, poor sleep, irritability, appetite changes, withdrawal (even from loved ones), and others.

Depression involves having intense feelings of sadness and low mood for weeks at a time. People with depression may also feel or appear angry, overwhelmed, anxious, empty, or aloof.


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses. It is a chronic disorder where a person has uncontrollable and repeating thoughts or behaviors that they feel the urge to repeat over and over. These are called obsessions and compulsions.

Common ways OCD presents itself include:

  • wanting things in perfect order or perfectly clean
  • fear of contamination
  • aggressive thoughts
  • intense desire to double-check things

To appease this anxiety, the person will complete compulsive actions, such as excessive cleaning, excessive double-checking, or organizing things in a very specific way.  OCD is a type of anxiety disorder. Someone with OCD may also suffer from depression.


Experiencing or witnessing an extremely stressful or terrifying event can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Someone with PTSD may suffer from flashbacks of the event, nightmares, severe anxiety, and constant thoughts about the traumatic event. Symptoms can appear immediately after the event or years after the event.

Military personnel, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders are especially vulnerable to PTSD.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder leads to extreme high and low moods. A manic state occurs when someone with bipolar disorder is feeling extremely happy or excited, potentially leading to impulsivity, poor concentration, and rapid speech. The other "pole" is the depressive state—where the person feels depressed and experiences the symptoms of depression. People with Bipolar Disorder spend more time in the depressive state than the manic state.

Left untreated, mental illnesses can become more severe over time. In order to cope, some people may abuse substances.

Gaining a basic understanding of these common mental illnesses will help you provide the support your team needs.  

The importance of mental health

When we don't take care of our mental health, our health as a whole plummets.

People with mental health issues report more muscle tension, migraines, chronic pain, heart issues, and more. Poor mental health worsens physical health, and vice versa.

As a result, employees that struggle with mental health experience high amounts of presenteeism and burnout. It can be very difficult to show up to work—let alone be productive—when mental health is poor. And when mental health is left unaddressed, it's a downward spiral. The effects of mental health in the workplace cannot be ignored.

Mental health vs mental illness is an important distinction—just because someone is struggling with their mental health doesn't mean they need a diagnosis. But a diagnosis may help an employee get the help they need to cope with their struggles.

But don't dismay! There are things your company can do to help.

Mental health support is a must in the modern workplace

There are some mental health resources every business should provide. These tools are proven to help the employees manage their mental health and take care of themselves.

  1. Employee counseling
  3. Mediation
  5. Yoga
  7. Financial coaching
  9. Fitness classes
  11. An open dialogue about mental health

You can do any of these activities individually, one-on-one, or in a group setting. To start, try just one. A great mental health tool to start with would be meditation! During your next company-wide meeting, explain to your team that your company wants to make mental health a priority. Then, take 5 minutes to follow along to a guided meditation.  

employee counseling scheduling—mental health vs mental illness

Nivati makes supporting employee mental health super easy – for employers and employees. We are the all-in-one employee wellbeing app!

Nivati’s average utilization rate falls around 65% – way more than the EAP average of about 20%.

Our clients have their very own Customer Success Manager that will help your company make mental health a priority. We can make customizations to our platform based on your employees' specific needs.

We provide employees access to counseling, yoga, meditation, fitness classes, financial coaching, and so much more – live and on-demand. Our practitioners are located around the world!  Want to learn more? Call us at 1 (800) 556-2950 or request a demo today!  


By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris
Haeli Harris, LMFT is the Director of Clinical Operations at Nivati. She has been practicing as a Marriage and Family Therapist since 2014. Haeli has experience working as a therapist in private practice settings, residential facilities, outpatient treatment care, schools, and telehealth.