Mental Health? – “I don’t have mental health”

When I tell people that I work as a psychologist, there is a customary eyebrow raise, a wide-eyed look, and usually one of two responses.  The sarcastic “so can you read my mind right now?” or a curious “so what’s it like working with people who have mental problems?”.

“When it comes to mental health, it seems that there’s been an ‘us-and-them’ mentality that has been formed somewhere along the line.”

There is an assumed normality to the absence of the mental and emotional challenges that comprise ‘mental illness’, and a presumed abnormality to their presence. What is most intriguing about this distinction, is that we don’t seem to have implied the same rule in any other field of health or life; be it the physical, social or spiritual. Within each of these other domains, we seem to have generally accepted that there exists a spectrum from ‘great’ to ‘poor’ health. Rather than labelling the person themselves as either ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ in terms of their health, we understand that the circumstances a person is in, along with how they act within those circumstances are the factors that determine where that person will fall across the range at any one time. We accept that health is a spectrum rather than something that we characteristically either are or are not.

For example, let’s consider Jane Doe. Jane has not exercised for the past 6 months and has eaten sugary foods to excess. She has also been smoking cigarettes more frequently and has been sleeping only 3-4 hours most nights. Overall, if we say that Jane ‘is unhealthy’, semantically, we would be suggesting that her current decisions and behaviours are conducive to poor health, rather than implying that she is a class of human that has inherently poor health and is predetermined to be unhealthy. In contrast, many would feel it appropriate to label John Smith, who avoids going outdoors due to anxiety, experiences panic attacks and constantly fears being put in situations that are unfamiliar, as having ‘mental problems.’ However, semantically, when we label him this way, it is very different from when we label Jane as unhealthy. John’s label carries a dispositional implication, that his problems are related to an inherent defectiveness or abnormality within himself, while Jane’s label simply suggests that her current ways of functioning are problematic for her health. Why the difference? I don’t feel there should be, and this is what we’ll explore here.

I recall teaching a subject at University a few years ago called ‘Abnormal Psychology’. It was centred around teaching the 5th year students how to diagnose and treat a variety of diagnoses including Depression, Social Anxiety and Bulimia to name a few. What was interesting was that when I asked the students to put up their hand if they’ve never experienced the symptoms associated with most of these labels (such as low mood, or excessive worrying), not even one was able to.  This, along with several other experiences, has brought me to consider that perhaps the very thing that we’ve termed ‘mental illness’ and ‘abnormal psychology’, is actually more accurately described as a normal human encounter, when one faces challenging experiences and emotions and in turn is hijacked by these and pulled into unhelpful behaviours.

“By considering it in this disease-labelling way, we place a burden on ourselves should any of us ever experience emotional difficulties.

I feel that our culture needs a mindset shift about the mind (pardon the pun). We need to allow mental health to join the other domains of health. To see it as something that we all experience to different degrees, instead of something only ‘those’ weak, dysfunctional or abnormal people get (as if it’s a gene!). By considering it in this disease-labelling way, we place a burden on ourselves should any of us ever experience emotional difficulties. This then stands in the way of us getting help! It’s an absolutely unnecessary barrier that just delays us restoring wellness to our lives!

We would do far better to consider mental health as a range within which we all fall at different points depending on our circumstances, experiences and consequent behaviours at the time. This is much more of an accurate way to look at the vast majority of what we call mental health. If we look beyond the names of Anxiety, Depression, or OCD for example, and consider them in terms of their function and affect, we see that they entail the presence of unpleasant or challenging emotions (experience) which influence or hijack the individual into self-defeating or destructive actions (behaviour). This perspective is exactly what evidence-based therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are based upon and their efficacy is gaining momentum in research! When we look at mental health as an inherent dysfunctionality, we create a cascade effect and compound the burden by causing people to feel depressed that they are anxious, defective that they’re depressed, or frustrated that are worried. All this does is make their experience worse, and subsequently interferes with them readily seeking help because they feel like they would be lumped into the group of ‘those’ people.

With this small change in mindset and language, with a perspective shift towards seeing the person first, and their difficulties second, we take a heavy burden off our society. We help us all, you included, to no longer feel like we must be ‘normal’ when the reality is, much of what we currently call ‘Abnormal Psychology’ is really the human response to a challenging life.

The Mental and Emotional Wellness program at Living Valley Health Retreat is designed for everyone, whether you are experiencing work-related stress or relationship challenges, whether you’ve lost a sense of meaning or direction, are feeling unfulfilled or just want to  grow from a state of being reasonably ok in life, to truly thriving and living! One of my personal endeavours in my role with each person I see is to help them understand their own mental health and to realize it’s not something to be afraid of nor hand over completely to a practitioner.

The shift to no longer perceive emotional difficulty as an abnormality is the first step to producing the right understanding and acceptance of ourselves. Only from this foundation can we truly provide our internal world with the conditions necessary to grow and thrive.