One thing I learned very early during my training in mental health was that the vast majority of people experience apprehension, anxiety, and stigmas when dealing with cognitive and emotional issues. The reactions to mental health often include shame, guilt, and embarrassment, and though these are irrational views of mental health, they are quite common. Sadly, it is often these irrational reactions that result in people putting off mental health assistance, even when it’s desperately needed.
To contrast how different mental health is to physical health, think about how common (and easy) it is for people to talk about broken bones, arthritis, hip replacements, gout, and even heart disease. The reality is that when people talk about their physical issues and problems, there is rarely any guilt, shame, or embarrassment — a very different response compared to mental issues. Consequently, unlike mental health issues, people usually seek medical attention when they experience physical pain and discomfort.
Words make a big difference
I vividly recall a conversation I had with a coach some 20 years ago when he politely advised to me to downplay the use of the word “psychology” whenever describing my background, and instead recommended that I just say “mental toughness.” The coach went on to say that athletes and coaches shy from anything psychologically-related, but when you call something “tough,” even when the word mental is in front if it, athletes respond differently. It’s funny, but now when I look back I can say the coach was really onto something, as the reactions to psychology then are the same today, if not worse.
Over the years I have also learned another subtle word-exchange that makes a big difference to people today: Mental illness and mental issues. We all experience mental issues in life, and on rare occasion these issues might fall into a category of mental illness. More specifically, you could display a few symptoms for depression, yet not qualify for any mental illness categories relating to clinical depression. It’s important to remember that the criteria used to assess mental illness changes from time-to-time, and there are subtle distinctions that differentiate whether something qualifies as mental illness according to the DSM (the guide most commonly used for mental health diagnosis).
Issues or illness?
It’s fascinating how just this one word — illness or issue — has essentially the same effect that “psychology” had compared to “mental toughness.” As a clinician that works with many kids, I find that when I help them with their mental issues they are far more invested and committed to the process compared to helping them overcome a mental illness. Although my treatment approach doesn’t change, kids are far more receptive and welcoming to help when they feel as though they don’t have a mental illness — and I find that the same holds true for adults.
Because of this interesting paradigm, I encourage all people to examine the mental issues they experience in life, and decide if they would like help improving upon them. Don’t let the scare of the label “illness” keep you away from identifying and addressing personal concerns that may be holding you back, especially when all you have to do is re-word your concerns to issues. Yes, it’s a small change, but one that seems to bring comfort to most people.
2018 is just around the corner, what mental issues would you like to improve upon for the new year? Why not hit reset and develop new goals for the new year — and don’t dismiss calling a professional to help you work through the issues that have previously held you back.