Mental Illness vs Mental Wellbeing: What's the Difference?

Contrary to popular belief, Caitlin is not a medical professional, and the first aid training she received does not equate to medical advice. If you are struggling with mental illness or your mental wellbeing, please seek help from your GP or a certified counsellor.

Last week I spent a day training to become a mental health first aider. As well as the diagnosis of mental illness increasing, how people cope with mental illness is also getting worse – for example more people are reporting behaviours such as self-harm and suicidal thoughts.[1] It is estimated that by 2030 approximately two million more adults in the UK will have mental health problems than there were in 2013. Mental illnesses are especially prevalent amongst young people, and are exacerbated by cuts to mental health funding, lack of meaningful employment, and job precarity. The children’s charity Barnardo’s has warned that with ‘gaping holes’ in mental health provision, we are ‘sleep walking into [a] deepening crisis.’[2]

This all paints a rather bleak picture. SCM, in conjunction with the charity Space to Breathe, has been working to support students with their mental health during their time at university. By focusing on spiritual tools that enable people to live life ‘well, fully, and deeply’ Space to Breathe aims to increase mental wellbeing for everyone – whether they have a mental illness or not. This is especially important for students and young adults, who are vulnerable to threats to their mental health because of academic pressure, being away from support systems of friends and family, and financial burdens.[3]

The focus on wellbeing is something that was also highlighted during my mental health first aider training. It was there that I first came across the mental health/mental wellbeing axis.

As you can see, the axis demonstrates that mental illness and mental wellbeing are two separate things, and that having a mental illness is not necessarily an indication that someone will have poor mental wellbeing. Likewise, just because someone has bad mental wellbeing does not mean that they have a mental illness.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental wellbeing?’ The first is comparatively easy to define – mental illnesses are conditions that can change people’s emotions, behaviour and thinking. They range from more common things like anxiety and depression, to less common (and less well understood) illnesses such as hypochondria or avoidant personality disorder. It is estimated that every year one in four people will experience a mental health problem.[4]

Although mental illness is often misunderstood and stigmatised, it is in some ways easier to define than mental wellbeing. The World Health Organization equates mental wellbeing with good mental health, and crucially they specify that mental health is not just an absence of mental illness, but ‘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’[5] This is a good start in understanding wellbeing, but I find it helpful to include Space to Breathe’s understanding as well which embraces happiness, sense of identity, and potential for spirituality.

We start to build a picture then of wellbeing as a state of wholeness, happiness, and potential. For Christians we might equate it with Jesus’ words in John 10:10(b) ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ Crucially, this does not rest on whether we have a mental illness or not. It is possible to move towards abundance through our own work in building wellbeing, through the support of friends and family, and of course through professional help. On the other hand if we have bad mental wellbeing we shouldn’t blame ourselves too much – I think that in many ways wellbeing is affected by external factors beyond our control like employment conditions, nationwide cuts to everything from mental health support to the Arts to libraries.

The important thing to remember is that we will all move around this axis throughout our lives, and sometimes the fluctuations will be daily. For example, it is incredibly common to experience depression after the death of a loved one, and so we might move towards having mental health problems. Alternatively, we may feel down during periods that are difficult for us, without becoming clinically depressed – in both instances mental wellbeing can be improved gradually so that we experience a greater joy and fulfilment in being alive.

Mental wellbeing is something everyone can aim for and seek to improve – you could use spiritual tools as described by Space to Breathe, lean on your faith for support, or get involved in student groups such as your local SCM. Some SCMers put their faith into action to improve conditions for everyone – such as protesters for Extinction Rebellion and for nuclear disarmament. Some SCMers spend time in local groups exploring their identity together and learning through ecumenical work. Some SCMers use their creativity to write beautiful liturgy, contribute to Movement magazine, or lead worship at one of our events.

If there is any way that we can work together to help you with improving your mental wellbeing get in touch, or if you have any suggestions for how SCM can promote wellbeing please let us know.