The other day I read an article from LDS Living entitled “Prophets and Apostles Share Their Personal Experience with Mental Illness.” I was surprised and pleased to see LDS Living addressing such subject matter, of course, but then I found myself agreeing with one commenter after the article who addressed the issue I want to talk about today: what is the line between mental health issues and mental illness?If you get a chance to read the article, you might notice that two of the three examples deal with mental health challenges rather than mental illnesses. So what is the difference between mental health and illness and does that difference matter?

Mental Health

We all experience challenges in life. We might deal with physical sickness, death of a loved one, financial distress, job losses, miscarriage, and countless other stressful situations and difficult experiences. These challenges affect our mental health. We often react to these situations mentally—we might get depressed for a time and feel like we can’t handle the burdens of these life challenges. We might feel severely overwhelmed because of financial burdens due to a job loss. We may feel anxiety when we start a new job or face having to give a talk or work presentation. We might feel debilitating grief when a parent, child, or friend dies.

These are mental health struggles that may last anywhere from moments to hours to days to months. We gradually work through the situation, life eventually changes, things improve, and our mental health begins to heal and recover as a result. Some people might see a counselor, receive Priesthood blessings of comfort, find peace in the scriptures, fasting, or the temple, and meet with the Bishop as they attempt to work through these mental health struggles.

But the important thing to note is that these mental health issues are related to a life situation and improve as our situation changes or we work through the challenges. In the LDS Living article referenced earlier, the experiences from Elder Oaks’ mother and Elder Holland seem to me to fit into this category of mental health challenges rather than mental illness.

Mental Illness

To me, a mental illness is, by and large, unrelated to life situations or struggles that happen. Yes, they can definitely be triggered by a stressful or new situation or change. But mental illnesses persist. They require care beyond pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, getting a blessing, and waiting for things to change or improve. They often require professional help or medication and will very often stick around for a significant chunk of a person’s life, if not all of it.

A person who seems to have life under control, who has not experienced a significant loss, and who is stable financially can experience mental illness. Mental illnesses are not respecters of persons. They do not just single out people who are destitute, spiritually lacking, or going through a rough life patch. A mental illness can affect anyone and can seem like it comes completely out of nowhere. It doesn’t always or often “make sense.”

Why does the distinction matter?

It is important that we distinguish between mental health ups and downs and mental illness because the amount of people affected differs as does the care for both, though sometimes it may overlap.

Mental illnesses are often more significant, devastating, debilitating, and require more intense care. Probably not every person will personally have a mental illness and experience all that it entails, though most people will likely know someone who struggles with a mental illness.

All of us, however, experience life. We all have good days and bad days, influenced by our situation and the things that happen to us. We all have mental health, and just like our physical health, our mental health is not always perfect. We experience happiness and joy, but also grief, worry, fear, frustration, stress, sadness, and pain. Our mental health is not a flat line but a collection of hills and valleys.

It is so important that we each recognize that life is like this—we are not always happy and carefree. We experience difficulties and those difficulties affect our mood and mental health.

But sometimes, some of us also experience something much more severe and different than those typical mental health doldrums. Some of us, like President George Albert Smith mentioned in the LDS Living Article, have mental illnesses. They affect our mental health, yes, but in a significant and lasting way that is often separate from our spiritual, physical, or social situation. We, as church members and people in general, need to respect the significance of mental illness and not classify things as mental illness that do not belong in that classification. We would not equate a cold with heart disease or the flu with cancer. Let’s be careful not do it with mental challenges either.

What do you think about this difference? Is it important?