Are mental illnesses real? Is there a difference between mental health and mental illness? Does it have to be one of the other? Do we ‘suffer’ with mental health?
I’ve seen some discussion around this in recent months and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. There seem to be two main views when it comes to this argument. The first is that mental illness doesn’t actually exist but rather we’re all on a spectrum of mental health throughout our lives and should be treated as such. The second view that I’ve seen quite a lot of is that mental illness is very real, it should be treated with medication and if other people are saying they are having difficulties without a diagnoses they are being dramatic/they need to just get on with things/they should just man up.
I can only ever speak from the point of view as a service user, patient and someone with an interest in mental health so please don’t take my view as gospel, it’s just my personal opinion. I don’t fall in to either of the above camps. However, I think they both have some valid points. I agree that we are all on a spectrum of mental health but I think that mental illness is very much part of that spectrum and I agree that medication is often needed to treat mental illness but I don’t think it should be the only treatment.
There is a lot of stigma surrounding conversation about mental health and illness. We’ve gotten much better at speaking in statistics but we’re not so great at talking about the reality of either. Often times those who are struggling will carry that in silence for many reasons – fear of being treated differently, fear of a label, shame that they’re not doing better, etc. I think if we were more open to the idea of mental health as a spectrum this wouldn’t be such a big issue.
Here’s the thing – WE ALL HAVE MENTAL HEALTH.
We all have mental health and we all have it for the entirety of our lives, not just when times are difficult. I often hear people saying ‘I suffer with mental health’, is that the right way to phrase that? If we’re always saying we’re ‘suffering’ with mental health then mental health becomes something negative. It may seem like a trivial thing but when that’s all we’re seeing it becomes ingrained and before anyone has realised we’ve subconsciously associated mental health with something ‘bad’.
I try to stay away from saying that I am ‘suffering with mental health.’ I chat will simply say that I’m not well in the exact same at that I would if I had a cough or cold. A majority of the time the person I’m conversing with will ask me in what way I feel unwell and I have no problem telling them ‘I’ve been feeling down lately/I’m really burnt out/I’m overwhelmed with anxiety right now.’ Was it a bit odd to answer so plainly initially? You bet it was! There were a couple of times that the person I was speaking to seemed taken aback and maybe a little unsure about how they should respond but now it’s become normal for myself, my friends & my family. It’s important to challenge the way we speak about mental health and illness. Now, we speak about mental health in the same way we speak about physical health. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘I have a headache’.
And that makes much more sense, right?
Mental health is not something that is inherently bad or good, it simply is. We all have physical health that is on a spectrum and we do things to take care of it – go for check ups, eat well, exercise. We all have mental health, shouldn’t we treat it in the same way? The reality is that the majority of us don’t, we ignore it until there is a crisis.
Maybe if we had a shift in attitude towards our mental health we would then treat mental illness and crisis differently? Mental illnesses are very real and they need treatment just like any other illness needs treatment. To say that mental illnesses don’t exist undermines the work of thousands. It takes away the relief felt by a patient when they finally get a diagnoses and treatment plan. Maybe if we treated mental health like physical health we would view a person with depression/anxiety/bipolar/etc in the same way we view a person with cancer/epilepsy/heart disease – with empathy and compassion, not fear, judgement and mistrust.
To me, it seems like we need to overhaul our attitudes. We need to recognise that everyone goes through tough times, that they may need emotional support but not necessarily require medication. We need to see that a majority of these people will not receive a clinical diagnoses but that doesn’t invalidate their experience. We also need to recognise that some people do have an illness, that they will receive a clinical diagnoses, that they need a treatment plan that is right for them and their experience is valid too.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
What are your thoughts? Do you think mental illnesses are real? Do you think mental health is a spectrum? Do you ltreat your mental health in the same way as your physical health?
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