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Let's Unpack It Again: Mental Health, Mental Illness, and Why We Need to Know The Difference

Updated: May 23, 2023

By McKenzie Gooding • May 23, 2023

Hey, friend. Quick question.

Do you know the difference between mental health and mental illness?

Maybe you’ve heard of both terms, but never got clarity on the difference. Maybe, in your experience, they mean the same thing. Maybe you’re a regular in mental health advocacy circles, and could write an essay about how often these two terms are conflated. In either case, it’s never too late to start learning, and a little refresher never hurt anybody.

Today, we’re recapping the very basics of what we call mental health literacy - the knowledge we all need to have to spread awareness and take action on and for mental health. We know it’s easy to get lost in the midst of terminology and jargon, but believe it or not, building mental health literacy doesn’t have to be as complicated as people make it seem. Understanding what mental health is, what mental illness is, and how they’re different are core parts of mental health literacy, and that’s exactly what we’re going to unpack (again) below. If you’ve got a couple minutes to spare, read on. It’ll be worth your time. We promise.

First off, mental health ≠ mental illness.

Mental health and mental illness are two terms that, frankly, get thrown around rather loosely, and are often used interchangeably to refer mostly to the latter. In the Caribbean, when people hear “mental health”, they think of psychiatric hospitals, erratic, violent behaviour and depression, which people, especially youth, “have no reason” to be experiencing. These conceptions are an unfortunate consequence of deeply rooted stigma, and that’s all the more reason we need to understand what mental health really is.

So, what is mental health, then?

At its very core, mental health is a spectrum - i.e. it exists on a scale with both positive and negative extremes.

Photo courtesy of Let’s Unpack It

Here’s the definition we use:

“[Mental health] is a state of well-being where a person recognizes their abilities, can cope with the stresses of life, work productively, can maintain healthy relationships and contribute to their community.”

Mental health is multidimensional, affecting us emotionally, psychologically and socially, and sometimes even physically. The quality of our mental health helps determine how we think, feel and act. We bolded a couple words in the definition above, and that’s on purpose. First of all, mental health is a state, but it’s not static. At any given point, we can fall on either side of the spectrum, experiencing either optimum mental health or poor mental health.

At the individual level, mental health is just as much about our ability to realise our full potential as individuals as it is about our capacity for resilience in the face of stress, worry and trauma. Beyond ourselves, our mental health influences how we interact with others, both in personal relationships and in wider society.

Contrary to popular belief, mental health isn’t this far-fetched phenomenon only people with mental illnesses (we’ll get to that in a sec, hang on) experience. It looks different for each of us, but we all have mental health. It’s part and parcel of the human experience.

What influences mental health?

Our mental health fluctuates in response to several individual and environmental factors, many of which we encounter in daily life. There are several individual biological and physiological factors at play, including genetics and substance use and/or abuse. Environmental factors like a strong support system, good physical health, quality education, and regular community involvement can help keep us on the positive side of the mental health spectrum. Factors like stress, poverty, discrimination, violence, and even natural disasters, on the other hand, can push us in the direction of poor mental health.

Photo courtesy of One Life New Zealand

While they can have some influence, it’s important to know that being exposed to negative factors doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sentenced to experiencing poor mental health or developing a mental illness. In the same vein, people with the best of environments and the strongest support systems are just as capable of experiencing mental health challenges with seemingly no cause. Put simply, no one is immune to experiencing poor mental health, and no one is excluded from the possibility of enjoying good mental health.

Okay…so what’s mental illness?

Told you we’d get back to it.

You might have heard different terms to describe similar things: mental health conditions, disorders, challenges, and so on. Mental illness is the catch-all term we use to cover all of that stuff. Simply put, a mental illness is a criteria-based, diagnosable condition which significantly disturbs and affects the way we think, feel, behave and interact with others over an extended period of time. Mental illnesses go beyond temporary feelings of stress or sadness we might experience from time to time. They have a debilitating impact on the various processes which go into healthy mental functioning, and can make it difficult to effectively navigate and engage in daily life.

Unlike mental health, when it comes to mental illness, you either have one or you don’t. Mental illnesses can complicate mental health. Continuous experiences of poor mental health, without proper support and management, can lead to the development of a mental illness. Mental illnesses include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and they are far more common than you think. The WHO estimates that 1 in 8 people across the globe lives with a mental illness. That’s a lot of people, the majority of whom have little to no adequate access to quality mental health care.

Photo courtesy of Very Well Mind

The good news is this: being diagnosed with a mental illness does not mean you can’t enjoy good mental health. Living with mental illness isn’t easy, but that’s why destigmatizing conversations like this matter so much. When we talk about this stuff openly, we open doors for people (and ourselves) to get the help and support they need to improve their mental health, whether that’s therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or something else.

Why all the jargon, though? Is it really that deep?

By now, you’re probably wondering how much any of this stuff even matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s hard enough to get people to sit down and have a conversation about mental health in the first place. Why make such a big fuss over terminology? Why police how we discuss an already very taboo topic?

Trust me, we get it. Those are all valid questions, and in the Caribbean, where these kinds of conversations are only recently becoming more frequent, the last thing we want to do is turn people off. But here’s the thing. That taboo you’re referring to? It didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a product of ignorance. Ignorance (in the dictionary sense) stems from a fundamental lack of understanding and knowledge about the topic at hand. And do you know what tends to happen when we human beings don’t understand things?

We fear them. We ostracise them. We find ways to demonise them. Open up a history book and see for yourself.

Now, replace the them in those sentences with people with mental health challenges, and hopefully, it’s a little easier to understand why how we talk about mental health and mental illness matters. When we’re not armed with the knowledge to speak about these issues responsibly, we facilitate an environment where stigma and discrimination begin to thrive. Left unchecked, stigma leads us right back to square one: we stop talking about mental health altogether. And in a society where we don’t talk about mental health, mental illness becomes a dirty secret that can cost people their entire livelihoods. In a society where we don’t have these conversations, people like you and me can’t - and often don’t - get the help we need.

Does knowing this stuff really make a difference?

Friend, it does. How we talk about mental health and mental illness matters. Everyone deserves to enjoy good mental health and to have access to the services and support systems they need to improve poor mental health and prevent and manage mental illnesses. It takes a whole-of-society effort to make that happen, and the first steps are spreading awareness and sharing knowledge so that we know, collectively, what we’re trying to tackle.

A mental health literate society is one that’s equipped to overcome the taboo of the mental health/illness conversation and prepared to advocate for the social, structural, and legislative changes necessary to ensure equitable, adequate access to mental health care and services – for all. When people learn and share, others learn as well. So yeah, something as small as knowing the difference between mental health and mental illness makes a big difference. You taking five minutes to read this piece makes a bigger impact than you think.

Gimme one last rundown.

Of course, friend! We tried to keep it simple, but we know this might’ve been a lot to digest, so here’s what you need to know in a nutshell:

  1. Mental health and mental illness are not the same thing. Mental health is a spectrum. A mental illness is a specific, diagnosable condition.

  2. We ALL have mental health. Not everyone has a mental illness.

  3. While there are certain risk factors, mental illness does not discriminate.

  4. Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy good mental health.

  5. Basic mental health literacy is an important part of combating stigma and discrimination.

  6. We ALL have a role to play in the creation of a mental health literate society.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations! We’re one person closer to our goal of making mental health a lived reality for all, and that’s all thanks to you. Now, we want to encourage you to go share this stuff with someone else. This May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, and there’s never been a better time to spread the word about mental health (and mental illness) than now.

While you spread knowledge, be encouraged to share your story too. What has your journey with mental health looked like? How has living with a mental illness shaped your experiences? What do you think society needs to do to make good mental health a priority and a reality for everyone? There’s someone out there who needs your perspective, so go on and share it.

Thanks for hanging out with LUI today. We hope to see you the next time we go unpacking mental health! Happy Mental Health Awareness Month, and go on and be great!



McKenzie Gooding is a 24 year old student from Barbados, currently pursuing her Master of Arts in International Development and Cooperation in South Korea. A passionate mental health advocate and LUI Ambassador, McKenzie uses her voice and shares her lived experiences to boost awareness and generate mental health literacy. She is a talented writer and enjoys talking about all things Culture, Film, and Mental Health. McKenzie is a contributor to the ACT!ON film/drama vertical of EnVi Magazine and is also a member of FORMATION, EnVi's vertical created to promote the work of black creators and contributors.


In a moment of despair, we could all use a little help and support. If you're going through a rough patch, and/or dealing with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please reach out to one of these Caribbean Mental Health Hotlines. You can also find some other resources compiled by Let's Unpack It here. Help is just one click or one phone call away.

We all have a mental health story. And, when we are open enough to share it, we can build hope, dismantle stigma, and help others to know that they're not alone. So, if you're comfortable, take a moment to share your lived experience here. #CareToShare

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