Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

By Neil Healy

Patrick Rodgers, Community Health Alliance’s Director of Behavioral Health Services, works with patients on their physical health by helping treat their mental health as well. One of the common occurrences with this approach is the push back from the patients, who Rodgers says commonly combine mental health and mental illness into one category.

“In the world of behavioral health, I’ve never heard anybody else split the difference between what mental health is and what mental illness is,” Rodgers said. “Everybody has kind of put them under the same umbrella of the behavioral health piece.”


But the two differ, both in their definitions and the approaches to treatment. Mental health is summed up as our well-being, something all people deal with. Rodgers treats mental health like physical health, using maintenance and prevention to keep future problems at bay.

“We all have medical health,” Rodgers said. “We all go see our primary health providers — either for a yearly checkup or our cholesterol is a little bit high so we need to monitor it and take care of it — and we’re doing all these things before they turn into diabetes. If we ignore exercise and we ignore the diet piece and we ignore the cholesterol medications and we ignore all this stuff, we’re going to end up with chronic disease. We’re going to end up with diabetes or hypertension or whatever these other diseases that are out there. In the same sense, we can do the same thing with mental health…

“So are we taking care of ourselves mentally? Are we taking time out to do stress reduction, i.e. mindfulness kind of things? As long as we have a pulse, we’re going to experience emotions. Sometimes we’re more happy, sometimes we’re more sad, sometimes we’re more confident, sometimes we have lower self-esteem and anxiety. Sometimes we’re so concerned with the future that our stress levels are up, and taking care of those things helps our overall health.”

Excessive stress can lead to numerous health risks, including headaches, chest pain, and fatigue, along with anxiety, irritability, and depression.

Mental illness, on the other hand, is when anxiety or depression prevents you from functioning on a day-to-day level.

“[Symptoms include] calling into work sick more often, reducing our social world, or we end up drinking more,” Rodgers said. “So there are all these pieces that start to happen, and that’s when it starts to turn into the mental illness piece.”

More serious examples of mental illness include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rodgers has noted that the potential danger in the confusion affecting how patients approach their treatment.

“The minute you start talking to someone about mental health, what they start to think about is weakness, mental weakness, and it’s not. It’s not at all,” Rodgers said. “And that’s one of the dangers, we start to do the stigma. The first thing people think about ¬— most of the time what we see — when you say mental health, they start to think about the crazy person walking down the street, flapping their wings and screaming at nobody.
“I’ve had it quite often, when I walked into the room and I’m introduced as the mental health guy, the person says, ‘Why do I need a shrink? I am here for my diabetes. I am not crazy.’ Literally, those are the words that come out of their mouth.”

Despite the misconceptions the public may have about mental health and mental illness, Rodgers is confident in his approach.


“We are directly attacking their medical conditions through behavioral health, and that helps to improve them as well,” Rodgers said. “My message is going to be: when a behavioral health person wants to see your patient, it’s not because we think they’re nuts. If you’re a patient, we’re coming in to improve your quality of life.”