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The Truth About Mental Illness

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Mental health has become a hot topic. Mental health has come sharply into focus as we’ve both witnessed and endured the effects of the global pandemic. There’s a growing awareness surrounding the importance and relevance of mental health not only for some, but for all.

When it comes to mental health we have an intuitive sense of what it is and also some ideas about it which have been influenced by our culture, the media and perhaps even personal experience.

We often tend to think of mental illness when we hear about mental health. We might have ideas surrounding mental health issues which might be steeped in our own prejudices. Mental health might conjure up images of derangement, loss of control and weakness.

Mental-health-as-mental-illness is generally a medicalised and institutionalised concept. Those living with a mental illness usually experience a diagnosis, medication and perhaps even admittance to a health care facility. We hear about someone who has 'suffered a recent breakdown' and has been put on some serious medication and admitted at the nearest clinic or psychiatric clinic. In short, our images of mental-health-as-mental-illness generally has dark and spine-chilling undertones.

Whereas mental health constituted as health - not illness - brings with it images of vitality, zest and the good life: pictures of a young, supple person in yoga pants sipping away on matcha tea, or of front cover models of health and fitness magazines.

Mental health is often polarised as either the dark, grim picture of a cold psychiatric ward or of the wellness portrayed by fitness magazine images. The truth often lays in the middle. Mental health, in reality, lays on a continuum. Mental health isn’t strictly categorical or reserved for either the healthy or the ill. The truth is that we all have mental health. “How’s your mental health today?” might be a more pertinent question than a mere “How are you?”. Enquiring about someone’s mental health, regardless of where they may find themselves on the continuum, may, in fact, be normalising the verity that we all have mental health and that our mental health might differ from day-to-day or even from moment-to-moment.

Mental health is a rich, all-encompassing concept which is revelatory about the state of our life-force, our vitality, our happiness and well-being in terms of our current inner state, our engagement with others and our productivity. It’s time to start normalising conversations around mental health. Mental health isn’t reserved for either the mentally healthy or those experiencing mental ill-health; it belongs to us all. Mental health touches most, if not all, areas of our lives. Mental health is both personal and public. Mental health is about thriving in private and in public. Good-or-ill mental health in private will show up in public. Take anhedonia for an example (a core symptom of depression which is connected to the inability to experience pleasure). Someone who experiences anhedonia isn’t moved by what used to move them, they draw virtually no pleasure from activities which they used to find pleasurable and rewarding. Anhedonia ensures that the person will not be the life of the party, they might be in great pain and connecting meaningfully with others might be beyond challenging, and may sometimes be a matter of impossibility for them. Private mental health touches public engagement. Many of us might live in oblivion when it comes to our mental health until a crises hits, until we suffer a loss or fall ill. We might judge others from a position of strength when all is well with us, but this might soon change when we suffer an unexpected tragedy or illness. We might lose our balance and our sense of security. We might fall prey to sudden panic or excessive worry about everything. We might get struck by a sudden bout of depression and feel low, heavy and unexpectedly run out of steam amid a big project. Mental health is thus not reserved for the medical profession or those, said with all respect, who we might think have lost their marbles.

Mental health is about our ability and fitness to survive and thrive in the midst of our daily challenges and keeping our lives from falling apart. The time is ripe to normalise conversations around mental health. Mental health equates physical health in every way. Stigmatising mental health has much more to do with ignorance than with outright judgment. When we realise that mental health is an intricate and all encompassing part of all of our lives and that it’s what keeps our lives, and relationships, together we become kinder to those who might be experiencing mental ill health. Acknowledging that we all have mental health and that mental health is on par with physical health - no stigma here - might perhaps infuse us with bravery to be more transparent with others about the state of the glue that keeps us together. Growing in our understanding of the normality and commonality of mental health might make us safer people to be around and more accessible to those who are struggling with mental health challenges. It’s therefore good to remember that.

- Frances Correia


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