“At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg, or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.” –Michelle Obama
I have always been a person who stresses a lot. Ever since I was in elementary school, I have always put these unrealistic expectations upon myself, especially in school. I was never good at sports and I don’t have any magnificent musical talents, but I could pull off really good grades. Somewhere along the line, I believed that my self-worth came from the mark on a report card, so I put all of my energy into school. Now, don’t get me wrong, putting strong effort into anything you do is healthy, however I had surpassed the healthy limits by a long shot. I began to develop this intense stress and obsession about getting straight A’s on every assignment, test, and paper I handed in and it took a heavy toll on my mind. I did not learn how to manage this stress in a healthy way, I did not talk to anyone about how my stress for good grades was taking over my life, and thus the beginning of my mental illness journey came to be. From there on out, my high stress turned into anxiety, which turned into depression, which became a seemingly endless cycle that still goes on today.
So let me ask you, what does the term “mental illness” actually mean?
To understand mental illness, we first have to understand the meaning of mental wellness, and therefore mental health. Mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” by the World Health Organization. Mental wellness is the ability to have a stable and strong state of mental health, and the ability to find balance. Mental illness, on the other hand, is usually caused by chemical and/or hormonal imbalances in the brain or bloodstream, which in turn causes distress to our mind and the way we process common daily stressors. Mental illness comes in many different forms, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, the list goes on, with each of these disorders characterized by specific behavioural patterns. Sometimes though, experiencing a mental illness can be as simple as just knowing that something is wrong. Maybe you don’t have the same energy or motivation level as you used to, or maybe you’ve been flighty and panicky lately and can’t figure out why. When I started to realize that my chronic stress was becoming a problem (and was actually turning into anxiety), I had no idea what anxiety even was- all I knew was that something was really wrong. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t commit to my friends or family, and I was beginning to escalate. Now, it is important that I stress that I am no doctor, mental health expert, nor specialist, but as someone who experiences mental illness, I can tell you first hand that you don’t need an official doctor’s diagnosis to know that something is wrong.
As important as it is to understand the processes and the science behind mental illness, it is- in my opinion- equally as important to talk about this issue. Anyone can Google “what causes mental illness” and can find millions of answers. But understanding the science is only part of the battle. As we have learned from some social movements like Bell Let’s Talk Day and the CAMH Foundation, it is undeniably important to talk about these issues with one another to help end the stigma against mental health, because after all, mental health is still your heath. More and more people in modern day society are suffering from some sort of mental illness and are too afraid to talk about how they feel. Mental illness is equal to any other illness in the aspect of if left untreated, it can end tragically. There is a massive stigma surrounding mental illness and that it’s “all in your head”, and if you can’t prove it, it isn’t real. I respectfully disagree. Your feelings and state of well-being are important and valid. No one knows you better than you, so if you feel as if something is off, it probably is. We need to treat mental illness equally to physical illness, because no single system within the body acts alone, including the mental, emotional, and physical systems. When one is out of order, the rest usually follow suit! Mental illness can affect almost every single area of one’s life and can cripple their ability to align themselves with their highest potential to reach their goals. Constant improvement in any area of your life is extremely difficult to do when you’re dealing with the constant setbacks of a health condition. This can lead to increased stress, frustration, disappointment, and distance between you and your goals, which can easily turn into a seemingly endless cycle.
I believe that if you feel you are suffering from a mental illness, one of the best first steps is to simply talk to someone you can trust, whether it be a friend, family member, or trained professional about it. You may not know what it is you’re feeling, and that’s OK, but talking it out with someone can make a world of difference and can actually help prevent things from getting worse. Learning to discuss your feelings in a safe environment is a huge step in the direction of self help. We will discuss more coping mechanisms and prevention strategies for the purpose of self help in-depth soon, but for now, I urge you to talk with someone about mental health.
Mental illness should not be a taboo word any longer; mental health is still your health and deserves to be treated as such. We cannot be our best selves if we are constantly fighting a battle in our own mind. It’s time to get back to the basics and reconnect with your potential, free from mental illness.