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Having ‘mental health problems’ is not the same as being mentally ill

I’m mentally ill. Or, according to language guides from the mental health sector, I suffer from mental ill-health. I live with mental health issues. I have mental health problems. Et cetera.

But let’s stick to terms I personally agree with, rather than what has been deemed politically correct by those who do not “live with mental ill-health”. I’m mentally ill. I have bipolar disorder I, with which I have been diagnosed after I was hospitalised with a psychotic episode in 2020.

A self-portrait I took days before I was hospitalised with psychosis

I’ve struggled with bipolar since my early teens, when I got to know depression. I had my first manic episode (that I know of) when I was 18, and it took a few more years for me to get my diagnosis. In the past few years, I’ve been finding the right mix of medication, I’ve drastically changed my lifestyle and habits to accommodate my disordered brain, and I’ve been in therapy to learn how to deal with drastic mood swings.

Living with bipolar disorder is a full-time job, and while I’m currently healthy and stable, it took me years of hard work and daily action to get here.

In those years, I’ve also grown familiar with friendly advice from those who “also suffer from their mental health problems”: go for a walk, exercise, clean your space, or meet a friend. And have I tried journaling, meditation or yoga? Did I know microdosing LSD helped a bipolar friend of theirs? And have I tried joining a regular workout class to make new friends?

Well-meant advice, but unfortunately totally misplaced. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just go for a walk, you’d call an ambulance. A great example of the ever-persistent difference between physical and mental health is when I had an accident and split open my head, which led to a concussion. I’ve never experienced so much worry and concern from everyone around me, especially because I had to wear a headband around my head for days.

But that concussion faded and the wound healed with time. Bipolar doesn’t, yet I have never been given so much thought and understanding for that – just well-meant, but inappropriate advice.

It’s why the difference between mental health problems or issues and mental illness or disorder is such an important one.

Mental health: a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.

Mental illness: a mental disorder is characterised by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour.

There is a difference between suffering from mental health issues, like feeling anxious or depressed, and those living with a mental disorder.

Everyone faces mental health problems. Everyone has bad days, sometimes for no good reason, and everyone faces hardship in life: mourning a loved one, going through a difficult period at home, or having issues at work.

But struggling with mental health doesn’t make you mentally ill. A mental illness is when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function, like depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.

A mental illness affects your day-to-day life, and, when left untreated, can have catastrophic consequences.

Mixing the two up, using euphemisms for mental illness, and saying you can relate to bipolar disorder because you have “ups and downs too”, is more than just annoying. It left me believing that maybe my months-long episodes of mania and depression might be normal because “everyone has good and bad days”, and even three years after my diagnosis, imposter syndrome gets the best of me sometimes.

Everybody’s mental health is important. It’s important that those with disorders get the healthcare and treatment they need, and it’s important that those who struggle with mental health can reach out and get professional help. But struggling with your mental health is not, and never will be, comparable to suffering from mental illness. So let’s not pretend it is.


1 Comment

The imposter syndrome is the hardest part for me, like everytime I go to the psychiatrist and they prescribe my medication I'm like ... Do I really have ADHD? Or am I just taking random meds? Am I cheating life by taking meds to give myself an advantage, compared to my classmates???

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