Mental Health versus Mental Illness… a Stigma Issue?

1212mentalhealth-RW (Photo credit: Robbie Wroblewski)

I was minding my own business, like you do, as I perused my Facebook newsfeed a few days ago, when I came across something I didn’t like.  I fought with myself.  Was this going to be one of those things that I would fight back on, convinced the writer needed my opinion?  Or would I let it slide?Actually I did a bit of both.  To start with, I couldn’t help myself and had to put my two cents worth in, but when I got heated responses I decided I was best to opt out and leave them to their own rather firm opinions.  It’s always so hard to know, do I fight or not?

The issue was the announcement of the theme of the World Mental Health Day 2012 (in October), as ‘Depression – A Global Crisis’.

I had no problem with the topic, actually I think it’s great that a mental illness gets the focus.  The difficulty I had was the comments of people complaining that this was far too negative a topic and it was time that the event focussed on health rather than illness.

Interestingly the topics of the past few years have been:

  • The Great Push:  Investing in Mental Health (2011)
  • Mental Health and Chronic Physical Illnesses (2010)
  • Mental Health in Primary Care (2009)

I should say that I was particularly interested in this announcement because I had recently found out that this event in October is the reason why New Zealand, Australia and perhaps other countries have not recognised the May ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’ currently going on in many countries.  I was told, rather tersely when I enquired about New Zealand’s involvment in the May activities, that May has nothing to do with mental health.  There clearly seems to be some tension in the air over these two events, although I won’t get side-tracked onto that.

Rather, people are claiming that a topic like Depression has no place in a Mental Health event.  This is bizarre!  So what is mental health?  The World Health Organisation tells us that mental health is defined as:

“as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes 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.

The positive dimension of mental health is stressed in WHO’s definition of health as contained in its constitution: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (1.)

I can’t argue with this but I notice that there is actually no acknowledgement of mental illness.  They say mental health is a state of well-being and not just the absence of illness.  I can accept that but wonder why there isn’t more focus on mental illness.  And what is so wrong with using a specific mental illness as the focus of a mental health event?  It almost seemed that the people I chose not to argue with didn’t want to acknowledge that mental illness exists.  And if this isn’t a case of stigma doing it’s damnedest I’m really not  sure what is.

Put all of this argument (that didn’t really happen) aside and it makes me wonder what I mean when I talk about mental health here.  In most cases what I am really talking about is an absence of mental health, or mental illness.  It seems from what I stumbled on that ‘Mental Health’ and ‘Mental Illness’ are perhaps two sides that don’t want to meet.

This all seems like such a shame.  If we want to remove the stigma attached to mental illness I fear we will never achieve this when the very people charged with promoting the healthy answer do not want to know.  No doubt they might protest but I really don’t see why mental illness can not be part of mental health.  I am convinced it is possible for me to live with my mental illness, yet have a firm hold on my mental health.

Right now it is not my mental illness that is preventing me from particpating fully in a healthy life.  If it weren’t for my physical illness (Fibromyalgia), my Borderline Personality Disorder would not be holding me back.  Sure it makes some things difficult but I don’t accept that I don’t have mental health.

What do you think?  Am I away with the fairies on this one?  Or is there are problem when people don’t want to acknowledge the existence of a mental illness when discussing mental health?

“Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought
or behaviour that is inconvenient for the system and this is
plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it
causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system.
Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is
seen as a cure for a sickness and therefore as good.”

―    Theodore Kaczynski
  • Normal (
  • Stigma (
  • Half of Us (

29 thoughts on “Mental Health versus Mental Illness… a Stigma Issue?

  1. I think this has become an issue of splitting hairs. Why would it matter if mental illness was a part of mental health? I would ask those people, “If mental illness was included under the umbrella of mental health, how would that negatively impact mental health? How would that take meaning and legitimacy away from mental health?”
    I believe that part of the reason we make so little gain in any issue is that we work more on defining differences and splitting hairs instead of just saying, “To heck with it! Let’s just get this done!” But then again…I can’t express my dislike of a haircut. LOL

    1. I totally agree and wish people didn’t waste time and energy of things that aren’t really the issue. And hey, one day you will be able to speak out about things you don’t like. One step at a time. 🙂

  2. Dorothy

    Well, my mental health is so ill that I can’t even understand the argument. If WHO’s definition of mental health ” is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being ” then an illness that affects the mental part of that being falls under that definition of mental health thereby depression is covered under mental health. You know this and I know this yet we are “mental” ?? Perhaps the term needs to include the rest of the dolts of the world that just don’t get it but I don’t want to join their club. I think THEY have the problem not US.

    1. I think that might just be the problem. And yes, it’s theirs not ours. I just wish such issues didn’t exist but then maybe I’m being idealistic.

  3. I think you are absolutely right that the heated responses you received are extremely troubling and reek of stigma-making. Those of us with diagnosed disorders have mental health as well. Many of us also need to be exposed to means of achieving mental health and encouraged to take paths that make better mental health more attainable. But furst me must begin acknowledging the existence of these disorders, understand what they entail, and assert the personhood and viability of individuals with these disorders. If we are only concerned about keeping the class of individuals considered “sane” mentally healthy, we are turning our backs to the bigger problem — ignorance — and writing of the mental health, or at least the potentiality of that health

  4. …in the class of individuals considered “not sane.” Until there can be an open, honest, non-stigmatized discussion about mental health for ALL, no real progress will be made. People are, by and large, uncomfortable discussing the cold, hard realities of having a diagnosed mental condition. We need to be working toward a world in which that is no longer the case. I’m not certain how we get there, but we must find a way. I hope New Zealand goes forward with the focus on depression and pays no heed to the stigmas of small-minded and dangerously complacent individuals.

    1. I’m never worried by typos, etc. They happen. Especially on the phone. The topic is actually an international one, rather than just for NZ. I have no idea how big the involvement from around the world is, but it makes we sad/angry when we have to pretend that something as big as this doesn’t exist.

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  6. I have absolutely no problem with being termed mentally ill; because I’m ill! I somehow get the feeling they wouldn’t try to apply this to physical illness.

    As above… like this even matters in the long run. There are far more important issues surrounding mental health/illness/whatever you want to call it than what it’s referred to.

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  9. It seems to me that efforts to support and facilitate mental health must recognize, acknowledge, and accept all potential barriers and factors that impact mental health, including physiological, neurological, and psychological diagnoses identified as mental illness.

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