13 May Mental Health vs Mental Illness: They Aren’t the Same
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s important to stop and think about what that means and why we need to focus on it. It’s also important to highlight why we need to stop conflating mental health and mental illness and the issues that arise when we do.
By definition, mental health and mental illness cannot be used interchangeably. Health and illness are polar opposites, no? Yet, in many articles, stories or discussions, they are used in place of one another.
When we do this, we confuse the message. Are we talking about promoting health? Are we talking about the presence of illness? What’s the point we are addressing?
We frequently hear the stat, “1 in 5 people will develop a mental illness.” When you hear that, what’s the first thing you think? Do you stop and say, “phew, that won’t be me—I’m staying in the 4 in 5 who won’t have an illness.” Do you stop and think, “wow, that’s a lot of people who are ‘ill’.” Do you rule yourself out of the conversation rather than connecting to it? When we talk about illness, this is often the outcome. If it isn’t us, we stop listening.
What if we changed the stat to be, “5 in 5 people have mental health.” What’s the first thing you think when you hear that statement? Do you stop and say, “wow, I never thought of it that way.” Do you stop and think, “that seems like something that might be important for me to pay attention to!” That statement includes everyone; we cannot rule ourselves out.
Like many things, mental health exists on a continuum. Some of us are doing great and really succeeding; others are not doing as well and may be dipping into a space where issues abound and there may be a diagnosable illness. Most of us exist somewhere in the middle. What is clear is that mental health is something that impacts all of us.
Stabilizing your mental health has positive benefits in all areas of life. Feeling stronger mentally can help you manage stress better, focus and attend to things in your life better, manage your physical health better, and can improve relationships with yourself and others. The benefits are many. Ignoring your mental health can lead to just as many problems and issues.
Often, we talk about decreasing the stigma of mental illness. Let’s shift the focus to decreasing the stigma of mental health. Let’s embrace the idea that it is something we all can improve upon and talk about what we are doing in that arena.
Let’s be open when we have struggles and share how we cope. Let’s demonstrate how to express emotions in an open way, being available to ourselves and others. The more we can do this, the greater the likelihood that we get ahead of the illness.
Authored by: Dr. Jennifer Hartstein