Are we ever going to get serious about mental illness?

This past Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, so designated to help raise awareness about mental health. But the issues of mental health and mental illness (two distinctly different topics) are in desperate need of much, much more than simply “raising awareness.”

Please don’t let that last comment mislead you — we do need to “raise awareness” about both topics, but we hardly manage to do that when it comes to mental illness, although we’re a little better about it for mental health, and I’m grateful for all such efforts. But that’s not even scratching the surface of what is needed, and what could be accomplished if we were a little more serious and, honestly, a little more mature about these needs.

First, let’s understand that the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” do not mean the same thing. HereToHelp, a mental health education organization, explains:

    “Mental health” and “mental illness” are increasingly being used as if they mean the same thing, but they do not. Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has health. As the World Health Organization famously says, “There is no health without mental health.” In the course of a lifetime, not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being (i.e., their mental health) just like we all have challenges with our physical well-being from time to time.

    When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about our mental well-being: our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us.

    A mental illness is an illness that affects the way people think, feel, behave, or interact with others. There are many different mental illnesses, and they have different symptoms that impact peoples’ lives in different ways.

    Health isn’t like an on/off switch. There are different degrees of health. People move on a continuum ranging from great or good health to so-so health to poor health to illness or disability. For example, some people have good health and have no problems going about their lives. Some people experience serious health problems, and their poor health has a very negative impact on their life. Some people have serious health problems that last for a long time, and others have serious health problems that resolve very quickly. Many people fall somewhere in the middle — they’re generally in good health, though the occasional problem may come up. Mental health is the same way.

    Just as someone who feels unwell may not have a serious illness, people may have poor mental health without a mental illness. We all have days where we feel a bit down, or stressed out, or overwhelmed by something that’s happening in our lives. An important part of good mental health is the ability to look at problems or concerns realistically. Good mental health isn’t about feeling happy and confident 100 percent of the time and ignoring any problems. It’s about living and coping well despite problems.

    Just as it’s possible to have poor mental health but no mental illness, it’s entirely possible to have good mental health even with a diagnosis of a mental illness. That’s because mental illnesses (like other health problems) are often episodic, meaning there are times (“episodes”) of ill health and times of better or good health [please note this – mental illness is often very episodic in duration].

    With the right supports and tools, anyone can live well — however they define well — and find meaning, contribute to their communities, and work toward their goals.

Efforts to address the need for enhanced mental health care have increased noticeably, with the general population becoming more aware of the need to be more “mindful” (self-aware) and more serious about stewarding one’s personal mental health. With this slowly growing awareness regarding caring for one’s mental health comes a plethora of educational resources (articles, books, videos, lectures, workshops, groups, organizations, etc.) to help people learn how to better care for their own mental health.

But the topic of mental illness isn’t seeing the same kind of progress. Our attention is forcefully turned to the subject when a tragedy such as the suicide of a well-known person occurs, only to quickly recede after acknowledging the sad fate. We still speak about the diagnoses of mental illness in whispers or hushed tones, with embarrassment, and we still attach stigma to those experiencing mental illness.

Such responses do happen from a lack of awareness — or just plain ignorance regarding mental illness. But it’s not just lack of awareness, there’s a certain lack of interest we’re all too unwilling to admit exists. Unless we or a family member or close personal friend are directly diagnosed with a mental illness, we just aren’t very interested in the topic.

That lack of interest keeps us from better understanding mental illness; from better understanding what those with mental illness are experiencing and what they need; and very importantly, that lack of interest keeps us from personally supporting providing access to competent professional services needed to provide clinically excellent treatment for those with a mental illness.

What many people fail to understand is that clinical treatment for many mental illnesses is highly effective if the patient has access to competent, skilled, clinical services. In that case, if we really understand mental illness and know there is effective treatment available, it should be important to us that access to such clinical services are available to people who need it.

“Raising awareness” of both mental health and mental illness is important, but what more can we do? Let me make a few suggestions:

Personally educate yourself about two things:

    1. How to be a good steward of your own mental health. Building your knowledge and learning skills to care for your own mental health, from learning how to manage and reduce stress, how to redirect your self-talk to think more rationally, or how sleep patterns, exercise, and nutrition impact your mental well-being, can greatly enhance your stewardship of your own mental health.

    2. Develop a general understanding of mental illness. If you do not personally have a diagnosis of a mental illness, chances are you will know multiple people who do throughout your lifetime. Learning about the mental illnesses of the people you do know will help you better understand these people and how you can be a help and encouragement to them. For example, if your neighbor tells you they have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, just a few minutes online can lead you to a broad array of information about such a diagnosis, which will provide you with a better understanding of what your neighbor is experiencing, and that should help you better understand how you could be encouraging and helpful to them.

Do what you can to contribute directly to making access to clinical services available to everyone who needs it. Organizations such as Scott Free Clinic are very effective at helping people change their lives, but the financial resources necessary to provide services to those in need must be adequately provided. Without financial support, needed clinical services are unavailable to people whose lives could be radically different if they had access to clinical care.

If you are suffering from a mental illness, get the professional help you need. There are very effective treatments for so many mental illnesses today that most people suffering from a mental illness can find relief and/or healing by seeking out competent, skilled clinical care.

Everyone can directly contribute to removing the stigma attached to mental illness. People with a mental illness often find it freeing to be able to talk about their illness openly and without judgment or the consternation that comes from ignorance. Those with mental illnesses will feel free and even prompted to talk about their illness when those of us without mental illness invite and welcome them to tell their story of living with and being treated for their diagnosis. Those without mental illness can be good listeners of those with mental illnesses, and we can ask good questions to better understand, serve, and encourage the mentally ill.

All of us likely can improve how we manage our own mental health; and we all definitely can take action to help people with mental illness be able to change their lives through access to quality, competent treatment. Let me encourage you to step out TODAY and become a Care Partner with Scott Free Clinic. Partnering together, we can make a real difference in the lives of thousands of people. To learn about becoming a Care Partner, click here.

In His Service,

Dr. James Scott, Jr.
Founder & President,
Scott Free Clinic