What is mental health?

Perceptions about psychiatric illness often ignore the fact that it’s common (and treatable)

The topic of mental health has been getting a lot of attention lately — and it seems to be one of growing popularity, concern and misunderstanding.

Discussions on this topic vary a great deal, ranging from scientific to casual conversations and with attitudes ranging from empathetic to judgmental.

People often question the state of one’s mental health in the context of egregious behaviors, violence and acts of criminality seen on the news. But they also reference it quite casually when discussing one’s ability to achieve success through a healthy work-life balance.

In many cases, our perceived understanding of mental health often projects judgment on one’s personality or character traits, which — while not actually an attribute of one’s mental health — are certainly aspects that may shape one’s behavior.

The fact is, nearly 1 out of every 4 people will experience diagnosable symptoms of a mental illness at some point in life, which makes mental illness about as common as seeing silver cars on the road.

Envisioning a spectrum

So what is mental illness, really?

The broadness of the topic may be best understood by placing it on a spectrum: On one far end, you have mental wellness, which is highlighted by resiliency, well-regulated emotions, healthy relationships and a thriving social life.

On the other end, you have mental illness, which may include dysregulated emotions, detrimental social functioning and the need for treatments to function autonomously, or to function at all.

It’s most important to acknowledge the vastness of the spectrum between those two far ends, where most of the population exists.

Your mental health is impacted by the overall physical state of your body, your hormones, neurochemistry, nutrition and more.

Indeed, the state of one’s mental health is surprisingly interrelated with one’s overall physical health. (After all, your brain is an organ just like your lungs and kidneys.)

Emotions and empathy

Mental wellness may refer to one’s ability to thrive, adapt or grow, resulting in a state of overall success and wellbeing. Symptoms may qualify as an illness when the frequency, duration or severity of them impact a person’s ability to function regularly on a consistent basis.

Everybody, at some point, will experience the symptoms of a mental illness, which — it’s worth noting — isn’t true of most physical health conditions.

We will all feel sad, anxious and even question our own reality, at times.

In most cases, however, these feelings won’t have the frequency, severity or duration to impact our ability to function in daily life and aren’t diagnostic in nature.

However, by virtue of understanding those feelings, we may have a glimpse of what it may feel like to suffer from a major depressive disorder or social anxiety.

In contrast, most of us will never feel the symptoms of other chronic physical health conditions such as diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, unless we’re actually diagnosed with such conditions.

This means that — although mental illness may be difficult to talk about — we all have a better understanding of these categorical symptoms than of any other condition.

Open and honest

While mental health needs can be complicated and diverse, there are well-trained and wonderful practitioners in the field.

In many cases of physical illness, health-care providers can rely on certain lab tests, X-rays and scans to accurately and consistently diagnose medical conditions, and then follow evidence-based treatment protocols.

Unfortunately, there are few reliable lab tests for helping determine a diagnosis of mental illness. Though physicians can measure certain hormone levels and neurochemicals — which can contribute to a diagnostician’s evaluation — it’s just not the same.

We’ve made significant progress on decreasing the stigma that can make the topics surrounding mental illnesses uncomfortable to discuss.

We should encourage individuals to be open and transparent about their understanding on the topic, and help educate the public on the full spectrum of mental health — illness to wellness.

Todd Archbold is a licensed social worker and the chief operating officer at PrairieCare and PrairieCare Medical Group, including eight metro-area locations and more than 100 clinicians, offering mental health care for adults, adolescents and young children in the Twin Cities. Send your questions to [email protected].