Stigma and sense: Understanding difference between mental health and mental illness

Published: June 24, 2019


KARACHI: Society may be waking up to mental health but the confusion over seeking help remains pervasive. The concept of getting treated for mood swings, depression or anxiety is unfamiliar to most.

What comes naturally to us, instead, is to deny and repress emotions by embellishing it under the term “strength.” To realise one needs help and then to reach out for it can perhaps be best described as taking a leaping of faith.

Researchers have found that individuals show a preference for self-reliance as one of the most important barriers to help-seeking. Other factors include hopelessness and hapless, confidentiality issues, and stigma attached to seeking help.



All this, coupled with the inability to recognise symptoms and accept that you have a problem, needs as much introspection as much as it needs external intervention.

In our part of the world, a major barrier to seeking help is also the misconception, misinformation and disinformation surrounding psychological care. ‘Stigma and Sense’ is an initiative by The Express Tribune that aims to go over the basics of mental health and illnesses for a layperson.

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Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness

The terms “mental health” and “mental illness” are increasingly being used as if they mean the same thing. But they do not. In the course of a lifetime, not every individual will experience a mental illness but every person will experience some sort of struggle with their mental health – just like physical challenges we go through from time to time.

Where mental health revolves around a person’s effectiveness in daily activities that influence productiveness, relationships, ability to adapt to change or coping with challenges, mental illness refers to the diagnosable mental disorders, i.e. health conditions that involve significant change in perception, emotion and/ or behaviour, including distress in social, work or family activities.

Mental health is the foundation of our psychological state – emotions, thoughts and feelings, the ability to solve problems and the perception of the world around us. It basically determines our day to day lives.



The term mental health encapsulates an individual’s feelings about oneself and reflects in how we interact with others. It is the key to personal and work relationships, emotional wellbeing and contributing to the society as a whole. In short, mental health is our ability to live and cope with everything life throws at us.

Good mental health helps one feel confident, enabling them to know their strengths and weaknesses. It is important to note that not everyone struggling with their mental wellbeing has a mental illness. Feeling miserable for a long period of time and socially isolating oneself are red flags that one’s mental health needs attention.

Mental health is precious at every stage of a person’s life – from childhood to adolescence, through adulthood and old age.

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On the other hand, mental illness refers to disorders outlined in diagnostic manuals such as the DSM-5. A mental illness affects how people think, feel, behave and interact with others. It does not discriminate – it can affect anyone regardless of age, sexuality, gender, geography, income, religion, race or ethnicity.

A mental illness is not something one can overcome with willpower – it is influenced by biological factors such as brain chemistry, hormones, trauma and abuse or a family history of mental illness.

Most common mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, mood and eating disorders, and addiction. The symptoms and signs of mental illness vary with every diagnosis. People who don’t have a mental illness may still be impacted if someone close to them is experiencing it.

With stigma attached to the term, acknowledging the signs may be a long, difficult journey. But it is important to note that, just like physical illness, mental illnesses can be treated. People recover, learn to manage and live a healthy life when diagnosed and treated.

Be it mental health or mental illness, the toughest part is recognising there is a problem and be willing to seek and accept help.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Bunny Rabbit
    Jun 24, 2019 - 10:25PM

    the best way to help such people is to keep them talking. don’t let them shrivel quitely in a corner. let them socialise .Recommend

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