By Martha Wolfe, LMFT
Mental Health VS. Mental Illness, What’s the Difference?
Work, family and daily responsibilities… are these familiar points of stress in your life? You are not alone, as these are common stressors we often experience in our daily lives. However, there are those heightened moments when stress becomes unmanageable or a traumatic event happens to us that can cause mental and physical changes to our overall health. According to the American Psychological Association, “Year after year, many Americans report extreme stress (22 percent in 2011; 24 percent in 2010 and 2009; 30 percent in 2008; and 32 percent in 2007) — an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale where 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress. These findings are indicative of a serious trend that could have long-term consequences on people’s health.” (January 11, 2012, Stress in America: Our Health at Risk). Many of the items mentioned in this report can affect our mental health and/or our mental illness. Before we move forward, however, we must first define the difference between these two concepts.
Mental health refers to our overall well-being; how we manage daily stressors and how we cope with them. Most importantly, it refers to how satisfied the person is with their overall life.
Mental illness is a diagnosable medical illness that results in significant impairments to one’s daily living.
Although these terms seem to be used interchangeably by the American people, they are not always describing the same concept. Most important, the stigma attached to one of these concepts versus the other, is much more damaging.
So, What’s the Stigma?
Have you ever had a bad day, week, or year? (If you have watched the show Friends, you will get the reference.) A lot of people have and mostly do. The difference between mental health and mental illness is that a person with good mental health will have the ability to manage life’s stressors and successfully overcome them. A person with mental illness might become more symptomatic during times of stress and require more support. Mental health and mental illness do have a few things in common: 1) Many factors can contribute to either 2) they both can become better or worse over time 3) They are both stigmatized.
So, let’s talk about Stigma. Have you ever heard someone tell you “get over it?” Or, “everyone feels that way.” I remember calling in sick at my banking job 10 years ago. I had bronchitis and a 102-degree fever. My boss asked me “when do you think you will be able to come back?” before she asked me if I was ok. See something wrong with that picture? According to Forbes magazine, “only 25% of Americans took vacation in 2014 and 61% continued to work during vacation.” Stigma plays a large role in keeping us from taking the time we need to nurture our mental health.
There are many forms of stigmas with mental illness and no one wants to be labeled with any of them.
Many of them include:
- Mental illness prevents someone from holding a job or someone from hiring them
- People with mental illness are dangerous
- Mental illness is self-inflicted
- People with mental illness are “crazy”
- Prejudice against someone with a diagnosed mental illness
Often, these internalized stigmas can lead a person to feel shame, which leads to unsuccessful treatment. By perpetuating these stereotypes, we can cause real harm to individuals who are struggling to manage their mental health.
What Can I Do?
How can we help? The first thing in helping dispel these misconceptions is by recognizing that stigma exists. Take a moment to reflect on your own attitudes and beliefs regarding mental health and illness. Once you feel more comfortable with your own views on the topic, maybe try to reach out to the many organizations that are rallying for change and you can help.
You can also reach out to your State Governor to learn more about your State laws regarding mental illness. If politics isn’t your thing, however, then perhaps you should look to NAMI as a useful resource. NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization. Education is key when combating stigma and they help provide it. Let’s start by moving towards a stigma-free environment so that we can all thrive and benefit from the unique gifts that we were given as people.
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