The Problem With The Term ‘Mental Health’

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I’ve lost my connection to the term ‘Mental Health.’ It means different things to different people, and that’s a problem. I consider myself a mental health blogger, but I’m thinking of changing that. To be honest I’m a mental illness blogger. I’ll explain why.

For some people, myself included, mental health equals mental illness. It’s a term we use to write about our illnesses, to explain and engage with others about what we go through day to day. For others, mental health covers everything to do with the way we think and act. People proclaim,

“We all have mental health!” Which is true, and I have no problem with people discussing their individual experiences. My problem is that vital voices are being drowned out. ‘Mental Health’ has become this huge umbrella of different meanings. The ideas that are more accessible and easier to digest for the general public will undoubtedly receive more attention.

It feels that mental health is becoming more and more synonymous with wellbeing, mindfulness and self care. Again, all great if you struggle occasionally with the stresses of life or have mild mental illness. It’s not for everyone and it certainly isn’t a magic cure. I’m growing more and more concerned that these subjects will shift the idea of what mental illness is, and trivialise it. I don’t need to read anymore articles about mindfulness, I get it, I know what it’s about. I don’t want people to start preaching to me about how if I practised self care and had a hot bubble bath with some aromatherapy candles, I could break out of a manic episode. No, what would do that is a review of my medication and the support of my psychiatrist.

We need voices that talk about bipolar, psychosis, personality disorders and schizophrenia. Voices that have the right platform and are listened to, because these aren’t easy subjects to open up about. It feels terrifying to begin, the real fear of being judged and ridiculed, stigmatised for something you have very little control over. By using the term mental health, these important discussions are being lumped in with articles about adult colouring books and how to meditate. Self help articles in my opinion should not be compared with articles educating about severe mental illness. There is a vast difference in the two.

As an example I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend. He asked about blogging and I replied that I was a mental health blogger. He instantly started talking to me about how he is sometimes anxious whilst travelling and how he’s managed it through thinking positively. That’s great and I was genuinely pleased for him. When I started talking about what I blog about and how I’ve recently started a series about psychosis I could see his eyes widen. He quickly changed the subject. This is the problem. Anything beyond being anxious on the train was too much for him to handle. By his response, that was what he was expecting and it was because I used the term ‘mental health.’ If I’d said I wrote about mental illness, I think his expectations would have been different.

We need conversations about the underfunding of mental health services in the NHS and to create that link to the general public of why so many people are struggling and ending their lives. We need conversations about how those with severe mental illness are not all dangerous, but are more likely to be the victims of crime. We need conversations about how poverty, housing, being an ethnic minority or part of the LGBT community can have a negative impact on mental health.

Maybe it’s time for a new term, or a shift in how people use them. If you’re writing about general well being, say that. If you’re writing about mental illness, then say that too. Don’t jumble up the two, it’s causing more harm than good.

3 Comments

  1. ashleyleia August 12, 2018 / 3:14 pm

    I find it interesting that people generally seem to understand that physical health can range from good to poor, with serious illness happening at the poor health end of the spectrum; yet people seem to get stuck transferring this over to apply to mental health and illness. I tend to think it’s unhelpful when people use “mental health” as a synonym for mental illness, along the lines of “I have mental health and am on medication for it.”

    • Katie Conibear August 13, 2018 / 8:29 am

      Great point, and what does having mental health even mean in that context? Mental illness medication isn’t the same as taking a multivitamin, meds are serious stuff.

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