Mental Health – are we talking the same language?

Mental Health – are we talking the same language?

April 21, 2024

When we hear the term ‘Mental Health’ there is an automatic bias toward ill-health and illness.  However mental health, like physical health, is on a continuum and there is the healthy end of the spectrum too, but that is often less considered and written about.  In this article I wanted to help clarify a few things with regard to the topic of mental health.
Let’s firstly address mental illness, If one is experiencing a mental illness, their experience must meet a set of criteria that matches one of the many specific diagnosable conditions or disorders that affect a person’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour.  The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or the ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases) are the recognised classification systems and are used by mental health professionals to make these diagnoses.
When it comes to mental ill-health, this is a broader term and includes people experiencing a range of symptoms which may in sum meet the definition of a mental illness for some people but in other cases will not.  This of course does not mean we pay less attention to the latter group, but the distinction is definitely worth clarifying.  For me the most important reason is to recognise that there are degrees of functioning and to where possible avoid unhelpful labelling.  Both objectives are undermined if we lump everyone into the mental illness category.
If we come now to mental health, it is useful to talk about the healthy end of the continuum, what high functioning looks like.  And there is a difference between coping and thriving. The pointy end of the positive end of the continuum is maximal health. For many of us this is aspirational.  However, many people don’t take the opportunity to raise their level of mental health from ok to great.  It’s like they get to ok and run out of gas.  For some it would involve digging around within themselves to uncover and recover from past hurts and traumas and there are a lot of people who would rather let that sleeping dog lie. For others it could just require an understanding of strategies to improve their self-talk but that requires work and time.  Reward for effort.

Now when it comes to key takeaways for managers, I would suggest the following: :

When it comes to the continuum of mental health, it’s important for managers to know the part they play and the part that must be left to the employee and others such as mental health professionals.  Understanding the meaning behind different mental health terminology is very useful but in practice focus on your role, particularly on understanding what support you can offer your employees to help them move from wherever they are on the mental health continuum to closer to the thriving end of the spectrum.

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