This is the second in a three-part series on mental health awareness.

Mental health. Mental wellness. Mental illness. It’s easy for mental health professionals to use these mental-healthwords almost interchangeably, but this is a mistake, according to Steve Baue, president and owner of ERC in De Pere, Wis. See

“We get sloppy with these terms,” says Baue. The Workplace Mental Health Promotion guide concurs. “Although the terms are often used interchangeably, mental health and mental illness is not the same thing; but they are also not mutually exclusive,” the guide states. “A fundamental difference between mental health and mental illness is that everyone has some level of mental health all of the time, just like physical health, whereas it is possible to be without mental illness.”

“…mental illness is a particularly dangerous word to misuse, because it can drive people from help who could really benefit from it the most.”

Baue and other sources illustrate and define the terms as follows:

* Mental wellness. This is the mental equivalent of going to the gym, eating a healthy diet, and getting a good night’s sleep, according to Baue. Like physical fitness, it involves being proactive and taking care of ourselves, while also recognizing that physical health also tends to promote mental wellness.

The World Health Organization defines it as follows: “A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

ttc_mentalhealth_bloggerbadge* Mental illness. On the other end of the spectrum from mental wellness is mental illness. Like a physical illness, mental illness is a biological issue, often something people have a predisposition to from birth, says Baue. When we don’t focus on our mental wellness there can be an increased risk of sliding into mental illness.

Mental illness features a behavioral or mental pattern that may cause suffering or a poor ability to function in life. Such traits may be persistent, relapsing and remitting, or occur as a single episode.”

In other words, while most of us suffer from “the blues,” now and then, mental illness refers to an ongoing condition that negatively impacts a person’s daily life.

More importantly, mental illness is a particularly dangerous word to misuse, because it can drive people from help who could really benefit from it the most. When we describe a mental health condition as mental illness, a person may think, “I don’t feel like THAT, that’s an extreme of what I feel – my issue is small in comparison.” The result is someone not seeking care because they don’t feel their issue rises to the right level of need.

* Mental health. This is the overarching part of the equation. While not easy to pinpoint, it refers to an individual’s life events, particularly a person’s health and family, according to Baue. puts it this way: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”

Life events drive our mental condition; regardless of whether that is healthy (mental wellness), or unhealthy (mental illness). Factors that can tilt us toward illness include: biological conditions, such as genes or brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma or abuse; and a family history of mental health problems.

But much like heart disease and many other physical conditions, a person can live with and sometimes recover from mental illness. Learning more about mental health and mental illness – including the different distinctions – is a crucial step in dispelling stigma, stopping prejudice and promoting early identification, and receiving effective treatment. “Use the right word; choose wisely,” Baue concludes.