Mental Illness and Mental Health: Everything You Need to Know

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What is the difference between mental illness and mental health?

With October being Mental Health Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to discuss some of the key differences between mental illness and mental health as a whole. Mental illness refers to a specific disorder that negatively affects the way a person thinks, behaves, feels, and/or how he or she interacts with other people. Mental health, on the other hand, describes our entire mental well-being, which includes our social, emotional, and other psychological functions.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigmas that surround the topic of mental illness, the people who deal with mental illnesses (whether personally or through someone close to them), and even the topic of mental health itself. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, and neither is a person who is seeking to take better care of their mental health. Some of this stigma may stem from a lack of understanding of mental illness and mental health as a whole.

What causes mental illness?

Mental illnesses, or mental disorders, can be caused by a variety of things, but more often than not, they are caused by two things: (1) genetics and chemical imbalances in the brain and (2) traumatic life experiences, especially if experienced at an early age in life. It is common for people with certain mental illnesses to have a family history of that illness or a similar one. Even some illnesses caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain can be passed down genetically. Conversely, mental issues can develop as a result of neglect, physical abuse, emotional/psychological abuse, or sexual abuse in childhood years.

Other things that can cause mental disorders include:

  • Cancer and other medical conditions (unrelated to psychological conditions)
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals in utero
  • Severe substance abuse (i.e., drugs and alcohol)
  • Social isolation
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Types of Mental Disorders

Mental illness is actually a fairly common occurrence, with more than half of all Americans being diagnosed with some type of mental disorder in their lifetime. Some disorders are mild and can be managed with therapy, while others are much more severe and have to be managed with both special therapy and medication. Common types of mental illness include:

  • Anxiety Disorders: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating Disorders: anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa
  • Mood Disorders: bipolar disorder and depression
  • Personality Disorders: avoidant personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder
  • Psychotic Disorders: delusional disorder, paraphrenia, and schizophrenia

How is mental illness treated?

Before mental illness can be effectively treated, a proper diagnosis must take place. This can usually be done with a mental health screening, especially if you have a history of mental illness in your family. There are several ways to treat mental disorders, so once a proper diagnosis has been made, treatment plans can start.

Therapy

Also known as counseling or psychotherapy, therapy is one of the most common ways to treat mental illnesses. There are different types of therapy (e.g., art therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, humanistic therapy, music therapy, play therapy, etc.) that are used for treatment based on the disorder, age of the client, or simply as a form of preference.

While traditional forms of therapy are helpful for those suffering from mild mental health disorders, those suffering from more severe mental disorders may need to seek help in a psychiatric hospital— which receives even more stigma. Psychiatric hospitals are specialized centers that are equipped to effectively treat those with more severe disorders and those who are at risk for harming themselves or others. The patients usually take up residence in the hospital for a length of time, receiving both medical and psychological care.

Medication

Often, some mental health disorders are treated with certain medications, especially if it is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Sometimes therapy alone is not an effective form of treatment for some mental illnesses and even some individuals. In the same way, medication alone isn’t always the most effective form of treatment; both medication and some form of therapy are necessary as a part of the treatment process. Medication helps to alleviate symptoms related to a certain illness, while therapy assists in changing thought patterns, which help to change behaviors.

Ways to Maintain Mental Health

As mentioned before, traumatic life experiences can lead to a person developing a mental illness. Although it’s more common for this to happen if the traumatic event occurred in childhood, it is still possible even if the trauma occurs later in life. This is why it is important to take care of your mental health just as you would take care of your physical health.

Therapy

Again, counseling can be beneficial to one’s mental health, even if they are not experiencing any mental health issues. Therapy should be viewed in the same way as going to the doctor for a checkup: as a preventative measure. Like our physical health, our mental health needs a “check up” every now and then. Everyone experiences extreme levels of stress at some point in their life, and it’s only natural to want to be able to talk about it. Seeing a therapist as infrequently as once a month can have a positive effect on one’s mental health.

Even something as simple as a support group can be beneficial to people dealing with major life changes, such as a divorce, death, or even those recovering from substance abuse. Just being able to talk about your feelings and having someone genuinely listen to you without judgement is good for you psychologically.

Stay Healthy

If you are already struggling with mental health issues, then this is easier said than done (which is why it’s important to first seek medical help if you are dealing with a mental illness), but if you can will yourself to do so, staying physically active and eating nutritious food both have a positive effect on your mental health. Physical activity releases chemicals in the brain that allow you to feel focused, refreshed, calmed, and even happy. Engaging in physical activity can look like walking daily, jogging, running, and weight lifting, but it can also look like pilates, yoga, and meditation. Keep in mind that resting is just as important as physical activity, so don’t overdo it and try to get plenty of sleep at night.

Along with staying physically active, it is important to stick to a diet that is high in a variety of vitamins and minerals. Our brains need these nutrients in order to function properly, and they keep our other major and minor organs functioning. It’s also important to try and limit processed foods, sugary foods, foods/drinks high in caffeine, and refined carbohydrates because these have a negative effect on the body, both physically and mentally. Along with eating healthy, it’s important to drink plenty of water every day, because doing so boosts hydration and energy levels.

Do What You Love

Part of maintaining your mental health includes making time to do the things you enjoy. Again, life gets stressful and it is important to be able to cope with the stresses of life in a positive way. Engaging in your favorite hobby, such as reading, sewing/knitting, fishing, gardening, listening to music, or journaling are great ways to wind down after a stressful day. If you don’t have a hobby, think back to when you were younger and what you enjoyed doing then. Odds are you still may love it or wish to get back into it (e.g., a sport, art, playing and instrument, etc.).

In addition to doing what you love, eliminating the things that aren’t good for you may be a necessity too. This can mean anything from finding a less stressful job to distancing yourself from people who cause chronic stress rather than support. Of course, either one of these can prove to be difficult or even impossible for some, which is why therapy is also used as a method to cope with certain stressors. Combining these tips with adequate physical activity, healthy eating, and therapy can help maintain your mental health, and even help you resolve some issues you may have not been aware of.

Conclusion

If you ever feel like you’re not feeling your best mentally, it is completely normal and okay to want to seek help. Seeking help from others is not a sign of weakness, but actually a sign of strength. Many people find it hard to ask for help, or even admit to themselves that they need help. Everyone must understand that mental illnesses aren’t a burden and that those suffering from it did not cause it themselves.

Even if you feel a little stressed/anxious, but feel like it’s nothing to be too concerned about, it’s still a good idea to look into therapy. Again, therapy should be seen as preventative medicine for mental health, and not just a form of treatment when a mental health issue occurs.

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