WHAT IS MENTAL HEALTH? WHAT IS MENTAL ILLNESS?


Article by: Luke Foster, Psychologist

Let me tell you now, there is a massive difference between the terms mental health and mental illness, and you will know the difference by the end of this article. 

Just like we all have physical health, guess what? We all also have mental health - even you big stallions and mares out there; those of you who think you’re invincible like Superman or Wonder Woman; those warriors amongst you. But important to note, while we all have mental health, we DON’T all have mental illness. 

Mental health, just like physical health, is not some fixed state. There is no undeviating, rigid divide between mental wellness and mental illness.

Our mental health exists along a continuum (see below for a diagram of what our, self-proclaimed ‘LIVINified’ continuum looks like).

Our mental health refers to our state of mind and how we think, feel, behave and interact with the world and people around us.

We all move along this continuum depending on a range of good, bad, indifferent shit that is happening in our lives at any point in time. Or more politely put, we experience ups and down regularly (and move up and down the continuum regularly) in response to stressors and experiences in our lives.

So, how do you know if what you’re experiencing is a problem?

If you are experiencing difficult feelings, behaviours, STUFF that you just can’t seem to shake – find yourself thinking “I wish I didn’t bloody feel like this all the time”.

If your sleep is consistently poor and you’re regularly tired or lacking energy.

If your appetite has changed.

If you feel anxious or you can’t turn off those damn annoying, negative and unhelpful thoughts in your head that seem to get more persistent and louder by the day.

Or, probably most important of all, if how you have been feeling or your behaviour, has been out of character and you are acting differently from how you usually act. This could mean you are heading towards struggle street. 

If you experience any of the above, but in particular a marked change in how you usually feel and/ or behave for an extended period of time – 2,3,4 weeks is a decent gauge, and if this has begun to impact your relationships, your ability to do the things you usually enjoy doing (hobbies and interests), or is impacting on your ability to do the things you need to do, like being productive or even just turning up to work, then I highly recommend seeking professional mental health support. Check out some options Here.

That’s a long paragraph, but an important one, so I encourage you to re-read it and to check-in with yourself.

HOW ARE YOU FEELING?

HOW ARE YOU REALLY FEELING?

What is ‘good’ mental health?

Trust me, it’s not feeling like ‘Leaping’ Leo Barry when he took that famous mark in the 2005 AFL Grand Final to win the match for the Sydney Swans every single day of your life (sorry to all you Rugby League fans, but what a mark) – that is simply unrealistic and unachievable.

I remember listening to a presenter at a conference describe good mental health particularly well (her name escapes me, but if she ever reads this article, thank you). She said something along the lines of: ‘We may say that our mental health is good when the way that we respond to things are congruent or match the experiences we are dealing with; when our ability to think and act is positive, realistic and helpful. We very rarely live stress free lives (this is still that smart woman talking at the conference), but with good mental health we can get through life without too much drama.’

Back to me, and the research I have drawn upon . . . The perks of understanding that mental health exists along a continuum is that with this insight we can begin to understand that by doing things - usually engaging in adaptive (helpful) self-care strategies, which means doing shit that makes us feel good about ourselves and is good for our mental health, and avoiding shit that makes us feel bad about ourselves and is bad for our mental health – we can take control of our mental health and prevent moving in the direction towards illness back down the continuum towards well. We can take control of our mental health, just like we can take control of our physical health (e.g. eat healthy, drink plenty of water, get plenty of rest, exercise etc. etc.).

One final point before I let you go and enjoy your day or night. People often ask me as a psychologist, usually curious school students (bloody hell they ask some great, but tough questions sometimes), 'Who can develop a mental illness?'

The answer is simple. Mental illness does not discriminate. ANYONE can develop a mental illness. A few examples that I dug up are highlighted below. 

Kelly Slater, the famous surfer after winning his 6th Surfing World Title (taking the record for the most World Title wins by any surfer on the planet - he went on to win another 5) stated “I was in a dark place and went through a pretty gnarly depression”.

Catherine Zeta Jones, the famous actress and fierce Elena Montero in the movie The Mask of Zorro stated “I am bipolar. It’s something I have, it’s not who I am”.

Demetria Lovato, American singer-songwriter, actress and television personality stated “It [mental illness] doesn’t have to take over your life, it doesn't have to define you as a person, it’s just important that you ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness.”

Adele, singer-songwriter with too many awards and achievements to her name to fit into a J. R. R. Tolkien novel, let alone this article stated “I didn’t talk to anyone about [postpartum depression]. I was very reluctant. Four of my friends felt the same way I did, and everyone was too embarrassed to talk about it. But it’s more common than you think, so please speak up if you’re struggling”.

Michael Phelps, American former competitive swimmer and the most successful and decorated Olympian of all-time, with a total of 28 medals (that’s almost more medals than days we’ve spent in lock down!) stated “I never wanted to do it [go to therapy]. I was always somebody who tried to find ways myself to do it and was very stubborn for a long time and had a hard time communicating”. After speaking with a psychologist, Michael reflected on the benefits and stated “I’m still here, I am still on this planet, that’s a major change in how [therapy] has impacted my life”. 

This list could go on and on and on and on!

In a nutshell (for those of you without nut allergies):

  • We all have mental health just like we all have physical health, and our mental health exists along a continuum – life is full of ups and downs.
  • Mental health does not equal mental illness, and just because we all have mental health DOES NOT mean we all have mental illness.
  • You may be experiencing a mental illness if:
    • Symptoms are causing you personal distress
    • Symptoms are relentless and present for more than 2,3,4 weeks with little reprieve
    • Symptoms are preventing you from doing the things you usually enjoy doing, the things you can usually do without too much difficulty or the things that you need to get done
  • Mental illness does not discriminate – it can affect anyone regardless of your age, gender, geography, income, social status, race/ ethnicity, religion/ spirituality, sexual orientation, background or other aspect of cultural identity.

If you think you might be struggling or someone around you might be struggling with mental illness after reading this extremely well crafted and insightful article (the author’s own self-evaluation), please DO SOMETHING about it.

With the right support at the right time, everyone can be helped regardless of where they might be sitting on the mental health continuum.

There is hope for EVERYONE.

Here’s the link to our Get Help section on our website again, in case you skimmed over this earlier in the article, you skim reader you!

#ItAintWeakToSpeak