Mental health has gone mainstream. Viral even.
But mental health is not mental illness. Even though the two terms are increasingly used as if they are synonyms.
For those living in the US, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, here in Canada awareness is raised in October. Regardless, I thought it a relevant time to explore the differences between the two.
The term ‘mental health’ refers to our mental well-being while ‘mental illness’ is an illness.
We all experience days/times where we feel a bit down or overwhelmed or stressed. It is unreasonable to expect to feel confident and happy all the time.
And it is only natural to have those feelings exacerbated by extraordinary circumstances.
Like the present state of things.
My Own Mentality
There are many different mental illnesses. And they have many different symptoms, all of which impacts people’s lives very differently.
If you have stopped here for even just a moment you will know that I live with several different mental illnesses. I have a handful of anxiety disorders (and suspected OCD), persistent depressive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder.
Then there’s all my chronic, physical illnesses.
In the past I have struggled with eating disorders (my relationship with food and eating remains far from healthy) and suicidal thoughts.
None of it makes me any less.
Logically I know this. I struggle with believing it.
Though society’s view of mental illness would have most believe otherwise.
A mental illness is just that, an illness. It affects the way I think, they way I feel, they way I behave. And, it affects how I interact with other people. Including my own friends and family.
My anxiety issues make interactions with others (strangers and friends/family alike) exceedingly difficult. An unexpected trip to the grocery store or a phone call to someone I love can be debilitating for me.
The picture of a life with mental illness is far different than the one society paints. Society would have it believed that those living with mental illness are dangerous and/or violent. The truth is, someone with mental illness is more likely to harm themselves than others or have harm done unto them.
Along with the stigma attached to mental illness comes a general belief that behavioural and mental disorders are controllable. And that belief is only applicable if society holds the opinion that they exist.
Sadly, the number of people who have accused me of making up my mental illnesses is longer than the list of people who believe and support me. And that has made my daily uphill climb ever-steeper.
Like most illnesses, mental illness is often episodic. Some days are easy. Some days are hard. And some days are fucking impossible.
In a Word
There are many factors contributing to the stigmatization of mental illness. Most notably misunderstanding and misinformation. But another factor is language.
For years people with mental illness have been portrayed in an unfairly negative light, often depicted as wildly out of control by the media. The entertainment industry sensationalizes acts of violence pulled from the headlines contributing to people’s fears and continuing a lack of understanding.
And while the media has a tremendous impact on society’s perception of mental illness, our day to day interactions with each other have weighted influence too.
The way we communicate through language matters. And has a greater impact than you may think. Gone are the days when people think before they speak. Nowadays, people are flip and dismissive, and not just behind the safety of a screen.
Using words like psycho and/or crazy to describe certain behaviours is not only hurtful but harmful. And that kind of language promotes stereotypes and discrimination.
You may not realize it, but those small changes (like eliminating certain descriptors from your vocabulary) can have far-reaching effects.
The promotion of fear has disastrous consequences. People with mental illness experiences multiple levels of discrimination beyond surface-level societal prejudice. Even today, with a better understanding of mental illness, people are facing barriers when it comes to (but not limited to) things like employment and health insurance.
Stigma and discrimination compound the struggle, making those in need of help far less likely to reach out and ask for it.
Using language, society can eliminate negative stereotypes and reduce the barriers in place, allowing those with mental illness to access a satisfying existence within society.
Revisiting our approach to language can redirect people’s thinking. And the easiest place to start is to employ non-stigmatizing language.
We all have mental health. We all have thoughts, feelings, emotions.
And, just like physical health, mental health can have varying degrees. When you are under the weather with a cold or flu, you do not feel well. Your physicality suffers because your body is not functioning optimally.
The same applies to your mental health.
Still, discussions about mental health still border on being taboo. Why?
Many people fear mental health is attached to mental illness. The stigma society has created casts a massive shadow of negativity on both. And that creates hesitance when it comes to openly discussing either.
Not to mention the still-in-place mentality that male identifying humans should avoid talking about their emotions and feelings for fear of being viewed as weak.
Which is utterly ridiculous. Last I checked, having a bad day or feeling overwhelmed with life’s stresses are not inherent to gender.
Our social and cultural attitudes do such a disservice to our well-being. Because mental illness and mental health have been presented as “same,” society has bestowed negative attributes upon the latter. And by maintaining a negative societal approach to both, we are prevented from moving beyond self-stigma when it comes to mental health.
Your mental health can have a profound impact on your life, like your ability to problem solve and understand the world around you. And, when you have poor mental health, that can change things like your physical health.
We should feel comfortable mentioning feeling overwhelmed or emotional, just as you would mention a cold or a sore back when someone asks how you are. Talking about our mental health challenges should not be discouraged.
Just like physical health challenges, it is bound to happen.
Apples and Oranges
You can have poor mental health without mental illness. Just as you can have good mental health with mental illness.
But mental health and mental illness are not the same.
Mental health refers to a person’s mental well-being. Mental illness affects a person’s mind. It can alter the way person thinks, acts, and feels.
And for me, it is so fucking frustrating. I can see it all from a logical perspective but simply cannot navigate it at times. Then I find myself stuck, immobilized by a mass of muddied thoughts.
My anxiety is different from normal anxiety. While we all experience fear, I can be overwhelmed by it when I am perfectly safe. I have no governance over it. And sometimes it can barrel roll out of control.
Hello, full-blown anxiety attack. Thanks for showing up with your sudden overwhelming fear, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
My persistent depressive disorder is different from a bad day. It is woven throughout every facet of my daily life. It makes it difficult for me to enjoy things. It makes my body ache, my mind confused, and leaves me exhausted yet unable to sleep.
And that totally fucking sucks because it also masks symptoms of high blood sugar, which is problematic because – well – type 1 diabetes. And it also envelopes me with heavy doses of blame and guilt. All. The. Time.
My body dysmorphic disorder is different than just not liking something about my appearance. It governs my existence causing me emotional distress and interferes with my ability to function daily. It finds me cancelling plans with friends, dates with my husband, and outings with my son, more than my anxiety.
It also finds me doing things like obsessively picking at scabs and popping pimples. It has found me on the floor crying for hours in a pile of clothes after trying something on and seeing myself in the mirror. And it triggers my other illnesses.
Mental heath and mental illness are not the same thing.
But we need to talk more about both. With open discussions will come greater understanding and a change in societal/cultural perception.
It will end stigma.
And raise awareness.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or unwell, please reach out in absence of fear. I have a list of resources available here (please feel free to connect if you believe there is something to add to the list).