You’re Missing Something Vital (Mental Health vs. Mental Illness)

“You’re fine”, says the inner tough-guy.

Habit coach smiling in the face of adversity

…but maybe you’re not fine. Maybe you feel sad, lonely, anxious, and upset. But maybe that’s okay…

Sad and Anxious are Normal Emotions

Do you know what mental health is? I know the subject is heavily talked about nowadays, but do you fully comprehend what it means to have “mental health”?

Answer: It is literally the health of your mind. The good and poor health of all minds!

If you are a human with a mind, you have mental health. Just like if you are a human with a body, you have physical health.

And then we can go a bit deeper and ask, “what is a healthy mind?”

A healthy mind is one which enjoys life and living, is realistic and at peace, and is resilient after undergoing a difficult situation. A healthy mind properly balances the 3 parts of the personal development loop: self-care, self-development, self-discipline.

This seems pretty straight forward, right?

So then why does it also seem that the normal feelings of occasionally unhealthy minds (such as sadness and anxiousness) are quickly being labelled as feelings which require medication?

I think the push on mental health awareness has exploded since the recent BOOM of social media and campaigns like #BellLetsTalk. And as a result, mental health echo-chambers have been created online, opinions on such matters have been instensified in the hope mental health will improve, and poor mental health has been conflated with mental illness.

“Wait Ella…what is the difference between mental health and mental illness anyways?”

I’m glad you asked!

According to the DSM-5 (the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5 Ed.), mental illness is, “… a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. An expected or culturally approved response to a common stressors or loss […] is not a mental disorder. […]”

Interesting definition. There’s 1 sentence in there that catches my attention, and that is what I want to talk about today (I’d also love to know your opinion in the comment section below).

The eye catching sentence is…

“an expected or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss […] is not a mental disorder.”

This statement is pretty easy to understand – normal negative emotions are not mental illnesses.

So what is normal?

In my opinion, normal is stress, anxiousness, and burnout after hustling hard through 4 years of university. It is not wanting to eat or get out bed after the loss of a loved one. And it is feelings of being incredibly sad and distraught after having a limb amputated.

As you can see above, there are feelings / responses which can be expected from people after experiencing something negative. And most people (maybe other than those with sociopathic tendencies… which can be attributed to a mental illness) would experience poor mental health in these circumstances.

So here’s where my issue comes in…and I’ll tell you about it using my personal circumstances for “credibility”

I believe that the push for raising awareness about mental health and mental illness has become so loud yet very unclear. I see individuals, business, and media outlets discussing poor mental health as one-in-the-same with mental illness. I see (although I whole-heartedly believe this comes from the right place) young people being told that feelings of sadness COULD be depression, which I believe is a problematic statement for one major reason:

It is correct! (Yes, you heard me right! The statement can be problematic for, in particular, young and impressionable people, because it legit makes complete sense

“Wait ..what?? Ella … what the heck are you talking about?”

Yes, I understand you’re probably confused, so please let me explain.

The Negative Feedback Loop of Mental Health

You see, by using the word “could” in a statement, the statement assumes that x (ex. sadness) might OR might not be y (ex. depression). The use of the word “could” leads to the acceptance of 2 assumptions, polar opposite of each other.

Now, the possibility that somebody may or may not have y (depression in this case), in combination with that person feeling like they’ve hit rock bottom, will tend to put them on the side of caution (…the same side I was on in 2017 when I thought I had depression).

Now, when someone sides with caution they take on a “just in case” mentality. This means, “just in case I have depression, I should take the necessary precautions such as get on medication and stay home when I feel like I am so sad that I can’t get out of bed.”

[which is exactly what I did]

Now fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with the “just in case mentally” because it is completely natural; it is essentially a flight or fright response to a dangerous situation.

And although the “just in case” mentality is natural, it still leads to an acceptance of a detrimental assumption (ex. the assumption, “I have depression”). And honing in on this negative thought can take someone to a dark place and leave them stuck in a negative feedback loop.

[Which is where I was stuck in 2017]

The negative feedback loop of mental health

Here’s the explanation for the logic model you see above:

Statement: I could have depression (remember that there is nothing wrong with this statement in and of itself)

HOWEVER, this statement then leads to an acceptance of two polar opposite assumptions: (1) I do not have depression and (2) I have depression

And because 1 of the assumptions is detrimental, you side with caution and the “just in case” mentality kicks in.

Since you are now preparing for the detrimental scenario, you have to adopt the idea that the detrimental assumption is true. That said, since the two polar opposite assumptions cannot both be held at the same time, you drop the assumption of the best case scenario in order to prepare for the worst one.

So back in 2017 when I fell into this negative feedback loop, I began to adopt bad behaviour that I subconsciously thought someone with depression would carry-out i.e. my mind behaved like a depressed mind, because I believed I had depression.

And once the negative behaviour started, my mind honed in on it and I started digging my rock-bottom hole even deeper. And once that happened, I started connecting the “depressed” dots of my life in hindsight; I thought, “all those times I was sad in my life make sense now. I must have depression.”

The mind is so incredibly powerful, it’s almost unbelievable how it can take hold of a thought and hone in on it. That’s why the power of self-talk is so incredibly important.

So as you can see, if a young, impressionable teenager hears a statement like, “if you’re sad you COULD have depression,” they might associate their rock bottom experience with actually having depression. AND THEN they might get stuck in a negative feedback loop.

“I can see how the power of thought is important Ella, but how does one get out of that negative feedback loop? How does one turn their rock bottom experience into their breakthrough moment?!”

Well here is how I did it, and maybe this can help you too:

1) I accepted the fact that I am more emotional than other people (at least it seems that way to me, and I’m totally cool with that). I realized that my über emotional state is actually an advantage, and if you think you’re emotional too, you can read about the benefits here.

2) I realized I needed to practice good self-care. (Even if you don’t have a mental illness, YOU HAVE MENTAL HEALTH so you need to take care of it. Don’t wait until you hit your rock bottom to start cultivating your self care tools.)

3) I simply decided that my mind’s focus must be on improving my life. And I accepted the fact that trying to improve it will be difficult at times.

I hit my version of rock bottom, so I needed to work hard to get out.

Let go or be dragged. - Zen Proverb

Do NOT be ashamed of hitting your rock bottom

Remember that suffering is relative, which means rock bottom is relative…

So maybe that means depression is relative too??? And if it is relative, maybe that’s ok… But since medication probably shouldn’t be used as a blanket cure-all for a relative and subjective human experiences, I think medical doctors and psychiatrists should be putting more emphasis on things like mediTation instead of mediCation. After all, any circumstances of sadness, suicidal thoughts, anxiousness, and overwhelm NEED to dealt with by the patient him or herself so that those feelings can be managed in the future.

In my experience, I can confidently say my weekly visits to the psychologist were what truly helped me end the downward spiral of my poor mental health, NOT the SSRIs my doctor prescribed me.

It was by learning to fill up my mental health toolbox that built my resilience and prepared me for the normal yet unfortunate challenges in life.

So even if you don’t have a mental illness, you have mental health… and in either circumstance you need to cultivate self-care practices. Don’t get caught in the “just in case” mentality, hone in on positive thoughts, and focus on making this the #YearOfYou

As always, Happy Monday ❤✌

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*Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. Any information and content on my website is not a substitute for professional health advice.

2 comments

  1. Hi Ella! Thanks for opening up this conversation about what mental health and mental illness really mean. As great as it is that society is beginning to open up more about mental health there needs to be more specification.
    When it comes to mental illness, it is better to be proactive rather than reactive when possible and a great area to start is with teenagers and young adults. Many young adults have social media addictions and experience much stress over keeping up their online profiles that they forget that they can turn their phones off and step away. They have also become out of touch with how to interact face-to-face with others. I believe that just by opening up to someone simply to say “hey I’m having a bad day today” or “I’m going through a tough situation and need some help” can have a great impact on its own.
    Youth need to develop better coping mechanisms in order to combat their negative emotions so to deal with unfortunate life events that are inevitable. Teaching better self-care tips is also important for one’s mental health and it is sad that I only started actually learning about it and having it instilled in me during grad school. It is something everyone should be aware of because we are not invincible. It is okay to put yourself first and take care of you in order to be strong for others.
    Learning these skills goes hand-in-hand with why therapies like CBT and ACT are becoming such sought after skills (I’m realizing as I begin my hunt for a FT social worker position). Many companies prefer experience in these areas because of how important and effective they can be. Using medication is not always the best answer, objectives learned in therapies like CBT and ACT can be carried on with a person throughout the rest of their lives and can be applied to various events that come up in life.
    Anyways, that is my two cents. Here’s to continuing the conversation!
    Thanks again for a great post:)

    • Alex, Thank you do much for this awesome comment. I agree with everything you said and I also find it surprising that I too did not learn proper self care and resilience until later in life.
      I wish you luck find a job in the field, it seems like you have a lot of knowledge in the mental health care field!
      Thanks again for engaging and supporting! 🙂

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