What is it to have good mental health? At a basic level, mental health could be described as the absence of mental illness; however, the whole issue surrounding mental health and mental illness is highly complex and therefore what constitutes mental health is not easy to define. On saying that, we can describe mental health by referring to what might happen when we are not in good mental health, when we are suffering from some form of mental illness.
Here in the UK it is estimated that a quarter of the population will experience some kind of mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental illness can affect any one of us; it is indiscriminate of age, gender, and status. It can strike at any time, sometimes with warning and sometimes without. So how can you recognise if you are suffering from a mental illness?
How to recognise mental illness
Mental illness can manifest itself in many different ways and no two people will be affected in the same way to the same degree. Someone suffering from a mental illness may be mildly inconvenienced by their symptoms in their daily lives and yet others can be severely debilitated to the extent that they are unable to care for themselves or integrate into society at any level.
Recognising when someone is suffering from mental illness is important in order to get the right help but it can be difficult when the symptoms are mild or vague or when the individual themselves deny that anything is wrong. Basically, someone can be said to be suffering from a mental illness when they are experiencing alterations in their moods, in their behaviour and in how they think and feel about themselves and the world around them, or a combination of all of these, to such an extent that they become distressed or have an impaired ability to function normally on a day to day basis.
Some of the more commonly known ways that mental illness can affect our lives is in the form of depression, anxiety, compulsive disorders, phobias, panic disorders, bipolar or manic depression, schizophrenia and dementia. Even within these terms there are variations and subgroups and different degrees of severity. Mental illness on the whole is anything but straightforward; it is often misunderstood by family and friends and can be misdiagnosed if a full medical assessment is not made. It can be isolating for the individual, particularly as they may not understand what is happening to them and why they are behaving in a particular way.
What causes mental illness?
There is no single known cause of mental illness but instead combinations of factors appear to have an influence including psychological, biological and environmental conditions.
Mental illness appears to be more common in certain groups of people indicating that some circumstances can act as a trigger, for example, those living in poverty and poorer living conditions, those who are suffering from long term physical illnesses or disabilities, those from ethnic minorities and those in prison or other institutions. People who are addicted to substances or are dependent on alcohol are more likely to suffer from mental illness than those who are not and different types of mental illness seem to be more common to men or women.
Life changing events can also trigger a period of mental illness such as redundancy, bereavement and divorce and there is also a genetic aspect to it as those with a history of mental illness in their families have an increased risk of developing a mental illness themselves. Recent research has also highlighted that a lack of Omega 3 fatty acids in the diet can increase the risk of developing certain types of mental illness.
Clearly, there are many influences involved so it isn’t possible to identify who is going to develop a mental illness and who is not and each and every one of us could find ourselves suffering from some form of mental illness at any point throughout the course of our lives.
The good news is that regardless of the type of mental illness, there is help available but the biggest step to recovery is first of all recognising that there is a problem in the first place. Many people feel that to admit to not coping or that they might be suffering from some form of mental illness is a sign of weakness or failure, and fear of stigmatisation, lack of understanding and knowledge, and of course denial, can effectively prevent many people from seeking help. However, it is essential that help is sought because mental illness doesn’t just go away and without help, the symptoms can persist for months or years causing a great deal of unnecessary suffering and distress for the individual.
The first point of contact is your doctor who will be able to make an initial assessment and advise you on the options available for treatment and guide you towards any other support groups or therapies that might be available. With the right help from the medical profession and with support from family and friends, most forms of mental illness can be beaten completely and normal life can resume once again. Even in the most severe cases, with a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment, it is possible to dramatically reduce the severity of symptoms and make a real improvement to quality of life.