Understanding Mental Health and Mental Illness

Part of the mission of Minds Anonymous is to increase understanding of mental health conditions and end the stigma that still surrounds them.

But what are we actually talking about? What are the definitions of mental health and mental illness, and how can we recognise a well mind from an unwell mind?

In this first edition to our supporting articles series, we will attempt to demystify some of the terminology used in this area. Outlining what we mean by mental health and looking into how to recognise the signs of mental illness.

We spoke to our sponsor Gill Seaton-Jardine, of GSJ Counselling, to get a counsellor’s perspective on this topic and help us unravel various aspects of mental health.

Let’s start at the beginning; what is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

We all have mental health but we don’t all have mental illness.

When we refer to physical health, we look at the body but when we refer to mental health, we are looking at the mind, including the following:

  • Emotions
  • Feelings
  • Thoughts
  • Behaviours
  • Reactions and responses to the world

When we are mentally well we can run our lives as we wish. We are more likely to be capable of holding a job down and managing day-to-day challenges. 

Perhaps a simple way of considering our mental health is to look at three key areas of our lives:

  1. Work
  2. Home
  3. Relationships

Ideally, we want all three to be going well, and if they are we are more likely to maintain good mental health.

Sustaining good mental health becomes more difficult if only two out of three, or one out of three, are going well. If we are struggling in all three areas we can expect it to be more difficult to maintain mental wellbeing. 

A current topical example is people who find themselves out of work because of COVID-19. People may lose their jobs and because of this their homes. If relationship difficulties also arise it may become difficult to manage mental health.

This is just one way of considering how mental health can be impacted by life events. There can also be physiological triggers.

When the mind is healthy it is able to make sound decisions, function, run its life and deal with life events. Mental illness is when any part of that functioning is not serving us well.

The concept of mental illness loosely divides into psychosis and neurosis.

Actually, mental health is the same as physical health, it just relates to a different part of an individual. 

Can you explain what psychosis and neurosis mean?

Psychosis is when individuals contact with reality becomes highly distorted.

It is a condition that causes a loss of touch with reality and an inability to identify what is real and what is imagined.

Comparatively, neurosis is a relatively mild mental disorder. Neurosis is where you don’t lose touch with reality but may experience conditions such as depression or anxiety. The person knows what’s going on, but their responses to stimulus may be inappropriate or excessive.  

Why is there still stigma attached to mental health?

I wonder if it’s the use of the word ‘mental’ which has long been used as a derogatory term. Phrases such as ‘he’s mental’ are sadly still commonplace in modern language.

I think it might go back years, back to the asylums, where people with mental illnesses were treated appallingly. It’s frightening that it seems that anyone that could be seen as ‘different’ could be put in an asylum, which in those times literally meant locked away. What a horrifying concept.  

Another contributing factor to stigma is perhaps the fact that we are still developing our understanding of the brain and of how the body and the mind work together.

We know we get butterflies in our stomachs sometimes, which is a physical reaction to mental stimulus.

The neuroscientists are working on the physical elements of the mind and the psychologists are working on thoughts and behaviours.

There is often scientific evidence of physical illness but there is not always such evidence of mental illness, making it harder to understand. Lack of understanding can lead to prejudice and stigma.

The term ‘mental health’ need not be a negative term in the same way that physical health is not a negative term.

If you have a broken leg then others can see it, if you are troubled perhaps they can’t, but mental health should not be a negative concept in any way. Everyone is concerned with both their physical and mental health but the stigma comes with mental health. 

I feel it’s time to change this. The asylums are long gone – the stigma needs to follow. It can prevent people seeking help.    

How can a person tell if they are suffering from a mental health condition?

That’s very difficult because we all worry about things, we all feel down sometimes, we all have the capacity to feel guilty and ashamed like we can all feel happy or content.

Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by specific feelings and may think we are becoming unwell but this is not always the case. However, if you are feeling that particular emotions are affecting you function this might be the time to seek help.

How can a person tell if a family member is becoming unwell?

A change in their behaviour can be a key sign. The person may become withdrawn, may behave in a different way. For example, a quiet character becoming noisy or a noisy person becoming withdrawn.

Changes such as:

  • Routine changes
  • Sleeping habits
  • Eating habits
  • Activity changes
  • Attitude and/or mood changes

It can be difficult to identify because these changes tend to happen gradually.

Gill Seaton-Jardine has over 20 years’ experience counselling children, adolescents and adults, supervising practising counsellors and training psychology students.

Look out for more articles with Gill Seaton-Jardine.