May 3, 2023

Differentiating Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

Tracy Clements
An illustration of two people comforting each other

When we hear the phrase "mental health," we tend to associate it with mental illness. However, mental health is not the same as mental illness. When someone says they are “working on their mental health,” we tend to think they are experiencing a mental health crisis — but that’s a false assumption. Just as we can always strive to better our physical health, we can also work on improving our mental health. 

The issue of youth mental health has become a hot topic of discussion among caregivers, school leaders, communities, and politicians. The pandemic brought this issue to the forefront, but it's been a concern for mental health professionals long before that. As educators and youth-serving professionals, now is our time to make real progress in addressing youth mental health.  

What does it mean to be mentally healthy?  

Mental health is the foundation of all human behavior. According to the World Health Organization, mental health is a state of mental wellbeing that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their community.1 On the other hand, mental illness is a significant impairment in being able to function in one or more areas of life. Based on the above definitions, most people, including students, fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, so it’s important to support mental health in this "gray area." 

Research shows that when students’ mental health needs are addressed, they have better learning outcomes2, higher attendance, fewer disciplinary problems, and overall better interactions with their peers.3 In a time when schools are concerned with closing learning gaps, it’s imperative mental health be viewed as a high priority. Regardless of where students are on the mental health continuum, it’s critical to provide support.

How to improve mental health in and out of the classroom

Much like we experience minor injuries or catch an occasional cold, our mental health can vary from day to day. While many of us know basic first aid and how to prevent physical injuries, first aid for mental conditions is not so commonly understood. Hesitance around discussing mental health and the stigma surrounding treatment only exacerbates this problem. 

Mental health, just like physical health, can be aided and maintained with healthy habits — and can be supported by schools. Physical Education is required in all but three states4 because we understand the importance of students’ physical health. Similarly, schools can be an excellent avenue to support mental health by teaching healthy habits like mindfulness, gratitude, self-expression, and more. As more states enact laws related to supporting mental health in schools, we can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment and address minor concerns before they become major ones. 

Start supporting student mental health — today

Are you eager to help students flourish mentally and emotionally? Good news — there are some simple steps you can start implementing in your day-to-day work to create a more supportive environment for students. Here are four quick tips to destigmatize mental health support for students: 

  1. Self reflect to process your own feelings regarding mental health.
  2. Normalize conversations about feelings and mental health.
  3. Partner with local mental health agencies.
  4. Watch your language choices around students.

You can read about these four strategies in depth in this incredibly helpful article by Michael E. Creekmore, Jr. LPC, CPCS. And remember: No matter where students are in their mental health journey, we owe it to them to create an environment where they feel safe and supported.

1World Health Organization. (n.d.). Mental health. World Health Organization. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from

2Parzych, J.L., Donohue, P, Gaesser, A, Chiu, M.M. Measuring the Impact of School Counselor Ratios on Student Outcomes. ASCA Research Report (Feb 1, 2019)

3Lapan, R. T., Gysbers, N. C., Stanley, B., & Pierce, M. E. (2012). Missouri Professional School Counselors: Ratios Matter, Especially in High-Poverty Schools. Professional School Counseling, 16(2).

42016, SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators. Shape of the Nation.