Have you ever been sick? Caught a cold, had the sniffles, ate something bad, maybe got injured? Sure. I can’t think of anyone besides people who have completely offline immune systems who hasn’t gotten sick at least once in their lifetime.
How do we treat those people? Well, they’re just ordinary people like you and me, right? Everyone gets sick, and most of us are fortunate enough to get well again for a while until the next bout of illness comes along. Illness is a part of life.
But the point there is, everyone gets sick from time to time. Sometimes, we don’t get well. Sometimes, we develop chronic conditions, from Long COVID to permanent lifestyle changes. After a cardiac event, you might be put on blood pressure medication or told to reduce the sodium in your diet. And as with illness, we just sort of go with it. Part of life.
So here’s the paradigm shift that I’d like you to consider, that rearranged how I think about mental health and mental illness. They’re no different than physical health and physical illness.
If almost everyone gets physically ill one or more times in life, then everyone also gets mentally ill one or more times in life.
And just like physical illness, sometimes you recover fully, sometimes you don’t and you have to make some changes to accommodate.
Why was this such a change in my thinking? Because for decades, particularly for people who are older, mental illness and mental health were person-defining traits, as opposed to simply events. Someone was depressed, instead of someone having depression. Someone was an anxious person instead of someone having anxiety.
Can you imagine if we did that with physical illness? Oh, (hushed voices) Bob’s an influenza person. That sounds ridiculous. No, Bob had influenza, and he’s mostly better now. For the most part – and this is not universally true, I know – we stigmatize physical illness less than we stigmatize mental illness.
The first key takeaway here is to change our thinking about illness in general, but especially mental illness. Having depression or anxiety or personality disorders doesn’t make you any less equal to others than having influenza or cancer or asthma – and you shouldn’t be treated any differently because of any illness or disability, physical or mental.
The second key takeaway here is to change how we think about our own mental health. If physical illness comes and goes, so too does mental illness – and the more readily we accept that fact, the more readily we can acknowledge when we feel mentally sick, just like we acknowledge when we feel physically sick. You will absolutely have periods of depression, of mania, of all kinds of manifestations of mental illness in life, just as you do physical illness. Sometimes they’ll be transient, and sometimes less so without treatment – but the faster you realize and recognize it, the faster you can find your way towards wellness.
Say it with me: mental health is health. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can improve all our health, physical and mental.
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