Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

I’ve never met a single person who could not benefit from the knowledge of a psychologist at some point. Does that mean I think everyone is mentally ill? Not even close. Does it mean I think everyone needs to see a psychologist? Not necessarily. (It also doesn’t mean I analyze everyone I meet!) What it does mean is this: psychology applies to everyone, and the distinction between mental health and mental illness is not always clear-cut.

While we’ve all grown to accept varying degrees of physical health, people often think of mental health as an either-or situation; either you’re mentally healthy, or you’re mentally ill (and if you’re seeking help, you’re “crazy”). Not so! Mental health, like physical health, exists on a continuum. Psychological knowledge can help with all points on the continuum, from prevention to treatment and relapse prevention.

Some physical and mental health concerns are relatively minor and may clear on their own; some are more serious, but generally respond to treatment; and some  are chronic and need ongoing care. Some need medication to be treated, while some can be treated without medication. Some can be treated with either medication or lifestyle changes, and some respond best to a combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Biology and genetics play a role in the development of both mental and physical difficulties, but so does your environment. You don’t have to be “sick” to get help or learn to take care of yourself mentally or physically. As they say, sometimes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Even with minor problems, learning effective ways to deal with them now can help reduce the chances of them becoming problems again in the future or developing into something more severe. That goes for children as well as adults.

There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) out there to help people learn to manage their mental and physical health on there own. There are many great resources (some of which I will periodically review on this blog) for learning new skills to increase your mental health at home. These resources have many advantages: they’re cost-effective, they’re even more private than therapy, and they can be done at your convenience. I highly recommend them, but sometimes they’re not enough.

One distinction that still remains between mental and physical health is the stigma. Once upon a time, people only went to doctors when they were sick. Once upon a time cancer was something people were ashamed of. We understand our bodies better now. We can accept that it’s not always possible to stay healthy, no matter how hard we try, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why not give our mental and emotional health the same consideration when the mental and physical are so closely connected?

At some point, we all experience mental and physical health challenges. They  may be relatively minor. They may clear on their own. Or they may be more serious. But seeking help for them does not mean you’ve given in to being sick; it means you want to figure out how to be the healthiest you you can be! Why struggle when there’s help available?

3 Comments

  1. I agree with you that there appears to be a stigma associated with seeing a psychologist, or even a counsellor. Although I have never thought of it as ‘mental health’ vs ‘mental illness’, I think this nicely illustrates your point. As a psychology student, I have always believed that psychological lessons or at least classes that help children understand themselves better should be an essential part of any education or curriculum. Like what you said, all of us will at some point in our lives face challenges. Sadly, we are not well-prepared to deal with them and that probably results in full-blown psychological disorders like depression. Thanks for enlightening me with your health–illness dichotomy!

    • I hope we see the day when the stigma of seeking help for emotional concerns is not more than the stigma of physical health concerns. I think seeing emotional health as a continuum rather than a dichotomy would help with that. (Maybe mental health AND mental illness would have been a more appropriate title?) Unfortunately, what feels right for dealing with challenges and what science tells us works are not always the same, so getting professional help really can make a difference. Thanks for your insights!

      • I think mental health VS mental illness is really appropriate, even though I see what you mean when you mentioned continuum. After all, most people are just lumping mental health and mental illness together, as though they are the exact same thing.

        And I like how you offer little tips in your blog! Looking forward to more tips from you! :D

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