What’s the difference between mental health and wellbeing?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Jun 17, 2021

What’s the difference between mental health and wellbeing?

These two terms have increased in popularity over the past decade, but what’s the difference?

These days, we’re speaking about mental health and wellbeing more than we ever have before, and it’s making a real difference. One in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and so the more that we keep on talking about it, and challenging the stigma surrounding it, the better for all of us.

As the conversation continues, you may have noticed certain buzz words that keep on cropping up together: mental health and wellbeing. But is there a difference between the two? Which one should we be using? Are they referring to different things? Let’s break it down.

The difference between mental health and wellbeing

Is there a difference? Well, the answer is yes, and also no.

Think of ‘mental health’ the way that you would ‘physical health’ – we all fall on a spectrum. On one end, we have daily health (nutrition, exercise, sleep, etc.) and on the other side, we have physical, diagnosable conditions. It’s the same with mental health – we have daily mental health (stress, anxiety, changes in mood, etc.) that we all experience, and then we have mental health conditions like depression, BPD, PTSD, and bipolar, to name a few.

When people talk about ‘wellbeing’, it’s most likely that they’re talking about our everyday sense of mental health, the things that we go through on a daily basis – such as workplace stress, feeling burnt out, or going through a difficult time emotionally – rather than the full spectrum of mental health including conditions.

These are things that all of us can relate to – they’re part of the human experience. There are also very basic things that we can all do to support our wellbeing, such as making time for self-care, taking care of our bodies through nutrition and exercise, and setting boundaries in our lives. That said, poor wellbeing can sometimes lead to mental health conditions and, so, if you are struggling, it’s always worth reaching out to your support network or a professional.

Factors that can affect our mental health and wellbeing

  • Relationships
  • Careers
  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Money problems
  • Work-life balance
  • Sleep
  • Self-esteem

Does language matter?

When it comes to the difference between mental health and wellbeing, some people might prefer one over the other when talking about their own experiences, and that’s their choice. The key thing is to not pressure someone into labelling something that they’re not ready to do – no matter how helpful you personally may have found it.

It’s also important to always keep in mind the spectrum of mental health, and not to get so caught up in ‘everyday’ mental health and the self-help tips, that you minimise the reality of mental illnesses – where people often do need additional professional support and with which the challenges can be ongoing, making the journey about managing the condition rather than ‘overcoming’ or ‘fixing’ it.

Listen to the experiences of others, respect the language that they want to use, and consider what works for you. You may end up using ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’ interchangeably as you talk about the things that you have experienced, or you may prefer one over the other.

Ultimately, being able to pinpoint how our daily ebbs and flows affect us, and the things in our lives that make us happy, or the boundaries that we need to put in place to feel safe and content, is the most important part of this conversation – and, whatever way you choose to talk about it, having that conversation is an important and supportive step forward.

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