What is mental illness and what is mental health? I shall try to define these terms. But before I do, let me inform you that the statistics show that mental health problems are prevalent in British society. According to the mental health charity Mind:
“1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England.
1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England)." 1
Common forms of mental illness
Interestingly, it is estimated that as many as 8 in 100 people in the UK overall are affected by anxiety and depression. Most people who experience mild or moderate anxiety and depression can function in their everyday lives to a greater or lesser extent. However, severe anxiety and depression are extremely debilitating conditions that can ruin a person’s life and prevent them from participating in society. People with severe symptoms are often “invisible” because they may rarely be seen out and about. Few members of the public understand just how disabling mental illness can be unless they have experienced it themselves or have a family member who is chronically ill.
Other forms of mental illness include a range of clinical diagnoses such as Mixed Anxiety and Depression, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Phobias, Panic Disorder, Eating Disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the most common mental health problems include depression, GAD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Severe forms of mental illness
The most severe forms of mental illness are categorised as being serious mental illnesses. These are the disorders that produce the symptoms of psychosis and include Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder as well as severe forms of other disorders, such as major depression and Bipolar Disorder.
Living with and caring for a person with a severe mental illness can be extremely difficult and challenging. Unsurprisingly, many carers are vulnerable to experiencing depression and anxiety because of many different factors, not least of all the relative social isolation that often accompanies their personal circumstances.
So, what is it to be mentally healthy?
Now that we know what conditions are defined as forms of mental illness, I would like to define what is meant by mental health. Firstly, it is worth mentioning that in general I find most people would prefer to talk about mental health rather than mental illness, perhaps because that feels easier given the stigma associated with mental illness. Sometimes the two terms “mental illness” and “mental health” are used interchangeably, and they have almost become synonymous. However, being mentally ill is obviously quite different to being mentally healthy.
Mental health, in my opinion, is more than simply the absence of mental illness. It can include all the positive activities, habits and behaviours that demonstrate the presence of mental well being and stability. These activities, habits and behaviours may have a proven positive effect in as much as not only do they show that a person is mentally healthy, but they may also help a person to maintain good mental health and prevent mental health problems.
Behaviours, activities, and emotional processes
A discussion of mental health needs to include the key positive mental and emotional behaviours that so many of us can take for granted in our everyday lives. Such things as being able to sleep well at night, being able to function during the day and maintain mental focus on everyday tasks, being able to maintain a routine, being able to maintain healthy relationships and friendships, being able to regulate our mood and control our feelings and so on. These are the “normal” things about which we barely give a second thought, but we would surely notice if we found we could not do them anymore. Any number of a range of mental illnesses or psychological disorders could disrupt a person’s ability to function normally.
In fact the World Health Organization, of which we have heard a great deal since the onset of Covid-19, states that:
“Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” 2
Characteristics of a mentally healthy person
Perhaps just as important though, are the characteristics of a mentally well person and the ability of that person to seek fulfilment in life, whatever that means to him or her personally. For one person that may mean climbing the corporate ladder to the very top, whereas for someone else it could be finding pride and satisfaction in growing their own fruit and vegetables. Neither does it matter if a person is an introvert or an extrovert. The characteristics of a mentally healthy person include having a sense of belonging, having a sense of self and healthy self-esteem, being able to laugh at themselves, feeling comfortable in the company of others, being able to form lasting friendships and relationships and feeling in control of their emotions so that they are not overwhelmed by powerful feelings such as anger, jealously, anxiety and so on.
Anyone can succumb to a mental illness
Any one of us could develop a mental illness at any point in our lives. Mental illness is not something that affects only certain people and not others, although biological and environmental factors do have a part to play. Life could be going wonderfully well until something goes wrong. For instance, it could be an unexpected physical illness, finding out that a partner is having an affair or being made redundant. Suddenly life can change drastically, just as a wheel turns either in one direction or the other. These profound life changes can throw a person off balance and into a state of low mood or anxiety. It might be difficult to sleep at night, insomnia could set in, loss of appetite or eating too much, losing interest in going out and seeing friends or family. A person can quickly spiral downwards, and low mood can progress into full blown depression.
I would like people to aware of this and to never take their mental health for granted, neither to judge or fear someone whose mental health has broken, who has become mentally ill.
References for statistics
1. https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/statistics-and-facts-about-mental-health (Copyright Mind)
2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health- strengthening- our-response
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