What is Mental Health? What is Mental Illness?

Feb 12, 2020

Let's do a quick word association. Let me know which words immediately come to mind when I say, "physical health".


Was it, diet? Exercise? Wellbeing?


Now what comes to mind when I say, "mental health".


Was it, anxiety? Depression? Stress?


How come when we say "mental health", the first things that often come to mind are mental illnesses? What's the difference between mental health…and mental illness? This week, I'm answering all that and more.


According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illness are "health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities."


They go on to say that "mental health involves effective functioning in daily activities resulting in productive activities (work, school, caregiving), healthy relationships, ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity. Mental illness refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders - health conditions involving significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior, distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities."


Now when they say "diagnosable", they're referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, or the DSM-5. This manual clearly outlines the various criteria required to be able to diagnose a patient with, say, generalized anxiety disorder.


Does that mean mental health is purely the absence of mental illness? To me, no. True mental health is about resilience, fulfillment, joy, vulnerability. It's the ability to handle emotional storms, acknowledge them for what they are, and allow them to pass without wreaking havoc on your personal, social, or professional functions. Mental health is the ability to use your mind as a tool, rather than allowing it to use you. Mental health is emotional health. Balanced health.


To give you a quick background, my medical training is in naturopathic medicine with a focus on integrative mental health. What does that mean? Basically, I look at my patients as a whole person and examine current symptoms and medical conditions along with past medical history, social history, physical and mental health history, any history of trauma… along with labs and imaging to make a diagnosis and a medical treatment plan. So when I look at anxiety or depression, for instance, I'm looking at everything I mentioned before and… your nutrition. Your sleep. Your exercise. Along with your psychological patterns and social relationships. To me, those five factors when optimized produce the quality of life that I call everyday mental health.


I'll repeat those five pillars: your psychology, relationships, nutrition, sleep, and exercise.


Which of those five pillars do you need to focus on the most? Let me know in the comments below.


Now, between us, I don't like the term "mental disorder". It implies something is wrong with you. We all have our challenges. We have different flavors of challenges, different degrees of challenges. Just because someone doesn't qualify for a mental disorder diagnosis as per the DSM-5 doesn't mean that they don't have mental health challenges to address. And just because someone has a diagnosis doesn't mean something is wrong with them.


What if instead of considering our body is like a car that breaks down over time, we instead considered that we have an incredible ability to self-heal. We have our immune system, clotting cascades, and countless hormonal mechanisms to keep our body in as close to homeostasis as possible. What if depression, for instance, was one of those balancing mechanisms? Well, it's been found that in the state of depression, a person's brain exhibits incredibly high neuroplasticity, meaning their neurons are actually rewiring and reframing knowledge, lessons, and meaning about themselves and the world around them. To the outside it may look like the person is withdrawn and depressed, but the body is intelligent, and the brain is actually healing. It's adaptive physiology at its finest.


So my point is this. Whatever challenge you're facing, you're not broken. There is always hope. Your mental health is about living your best life. And you will.


Always remember, I believe in your greatness.


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