The Mental Health Myth We NEED To Stop Teaching

Understanding the Vital Difference between Mental Health and Mental Illness

The terms mental health and mental illness DO NOT mean the same thing.


One word may seem like an inconsequential difference. But in reality, referring to mental health and mental illness as synonyms is detrimental to the well-being of our students.


As the conversation about mental health and illness continues to grow and gain attention, it becomes even more imperative that we, as health educators, promote accurate narratives.


To understand this more clearly, let’s first look at what the terms mental health and mental illness actually mean.

A Quick Look: Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Mental HealthMental Illness
A person's general ability to cope with life, be productive at work/school, understand and express emotions, and have healthy relationshipsA medical condition causing significant change to a person's emotions, thinking, and/or behavior
Everyone has some level of mental health at all times1 in 4 people will expeirence a mental illness in their life
A regular part of everyday lifeA recongized medical condition
Can be managed with activities like: sleep, exericse, diet, and meditationRequires medical treatment (such as medication and therapy)

This means that if you have a mental illness, you can still build a high level of mental health. Meaning if you are mentally ill you can:


  • Build healthy connections and relationship
  • Positively contribute to your community
  • Cope with challenges and stressful situations in a productive manner
  • Have autonomy over your life


It also means that if you don’t have a mental illness, you still need to intentionally strengthen your mental health.


>> Teaching Tip: Essentially you can compare the difference between mental health and mental illness to physical health and physical illness. We all have some level of physical health all the time. Physical health just refers to the general state of your body and how well it’s working. Meanwhile, physical illness refers to a specific illness affecting the body such as diabetes.


This Myth Is Harming Student Well-Being


So what exactly is so profound about understanding these differences? Let’s look at a few examples of how believing this myth (believing mental health equals mental illness) negatively impacts our students’ well-being:


Harming Students With a Mental Illness:

If students don't believe they can have mental health when dealing with a mental illness, their hope, agency, and confidence disappear.


  • By accepting this myth as truth, a student with a mental illness believes having a mental illness automatically means they have a low level of mental health. And to have a low level of mental health means you struggle to identify and express emotions, connect and build relationships, manage stress, and positively contribute to the world.


  • When in reality those with mental illness are highly capable human beings with great gifts to offer the world. If we fail to recognize this truth we fail to create an environment where everyone is valued.


Harming Students Without a Mental Illness

If students believe having a mental illness means having LOW mental health. They will also believe NOT have a mental illness means having HIGH mental health. This isn’t accurate and believing this means students may neglect to take care of their mental health because they didn't even realize it’s something to nurture.


  • For example, even if you don’t have diabetes (physical illness) you still should focus on taking care of your body (physical health) through healthy eating and being active.

Harming Society as a Whole

Also, if we don't understand the difference between mental health and illness, we are at risk of completely misjudging those battling mental illness. It makes it easier to view those with mental illness as less than and broken.


  • When we collectively believe this myth, we are at risk of perpetuating mental illness stigma and discrimination. When we don’t fully understand a topic as complex as mental illness, we give life to false narratives and the cycle of misunderstanding continues to build and well-being is negatively impacted. 

Tips For Addressing This Myth in Your Classroom


  • Use accurate language when talking about mental health and illness and correct students when they refer to these terms as the same thing.


  • Give students a framework to understand by comparing mental health and illness to physical health and illness.


  • Be intentional about demystifying both mental health and mental illness. Both are apart of everyday life. The more we talk openly and honestly, the more we diminish stigma and lessen discrimination.


The classroom is a powerful place to raise mental health awareness and empower students to enhance their mental well-being. Being intentional about the language you use may seem like a small gesture. But in reality, it's anything but small. In reality, you are creating a profound, lasting impact that will forever change your students' lives.


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Hello. I'm  Janelle!

A middle school health teacher turned curriculum developer (and #WAHM). I'm on a mission to share the easiest-to-teach, most impactful health lesson plans on the Internet. Because your time and energy is better spent on teaching and connecting, not on planning and prep.

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