I often hear of the terms mental health and mental illness being used interchangeably. I have also heard them used as part of the same continuum. Neither of these are valid or true.
Mental health refers to a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being. The mental health continuum is a range of mental health with mentally healthy at the left of the spectrum, mental health problems in the middle, and mental disorder at the right end of the spectrum. A person fluctuates on the continuum depending on internal or external factors.
Mental illness, on the other hand, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
Mental health and mental illness are not simply at opposite ends of a single spectrum. People diagnosed with a mental illness can still have high levels of general mental well-being, while those without a diagnosed mental illness can show low levels of mental well-being. Mental health is best understood as a matrix, where people can move among states of mental well-being regardless of mental illness. They can flourish or languish, depending on individual functioning, social well-being and mental health issues. This model emphasizes that mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness. This means that it’s possible to have good mental health while living with mental illness.
This matrix, as seen below, demonstrates just how complex the issues around mental health and mental illness are. Too often it is seen as an all or nothing static situation. In reality it is rather fluid and can be influenced by numerous factors. So, when I hear statements that further stigmatize mental health and mental illness it is upsetting. Often these statements make matters worse. They create a climate in which people become fearful of getting help. No wants to be labeled crazy or mental. So next time you catch commenting on someone else’s mental status, think about this matrix and just how complex the issues are.
Until next time….
Change. Discover. Transform.
Carla Carter, Ed.D., LCPC, CMPC, EMDR Certified