Decoding the difference between mental health and mental illness

Joel Brown Image
Wednesday, May 17, 2023
Decoding the difference between mental health and mental illness
ABC 11 is helping to decode the difference between mental health and mental illness.

ABC11 is helping to decode the difference between mental health and mental illness. As the terms are used more and more, many may still wonder what they mean or what the difference is.

"Mental health is what we all have," said WakeMed psychiatrist Dr. Nerissa Price who describes mental health as a continuum. Something that's always there -- whether it's positive or negative.

"It has to be really intentionally looked after," Dr. Price said. "You don't just wake up having good mental health."

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Mental health, at its best, you're excelling: joyful, energetic, high-performing at work or school. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may be in crisis: extremely anxious, not sleeping, perhaps thoughts of suicide. Those are serious signs of mental illness.

"There's a lot of complexity that goes into us developing mental illness that we don't fully understand," said Price.

Being aware of the triggers can make a huge difference. Sometimes it's genetics, a family history of mental illness or substance use disorder or unresolved stress: a death, financial problems, divorce.

But 75% of mental illnesses begin before the age of 24 -- triggered by a childhood trauma that's never been confronted.

"It's so important to reach the child, the teenager, the young person to help them to identify when these symptoms may begin to help get them treatment at those early stages," Price said.

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As guns show up in schools weekly and emergency rooms fill up with teens experiencing mental health crises stakeholders urge more needs to be done.

Among the coping strategies Dr. Price promotes, resilience is a key component. It's your ability to recover when adverse things happen.

"Resilience can be taught. Resilience can be learned," Price said. "Just in the same way you can learn to strengthen your physical body, you strengthen your mental body."

Price agrees it's possible to have good mental health even if suffering from a mental illness.

"Absolutely," she said. "In fact, there are treatments that are really successful in helping people with mental illness and they work so well and can get people back on track to have the fullness of their life."

Talking to a professional therapist is always a good first step wherever you fall on the mental health continuum. And help is always a phone call away -- the Suicide Prevention Hotline is staffed 24/7. Just call or text 988.