Mental Illness Vs. Mental Health Issues

This blog series about mental illness is inspired by a session taught by Irma Janzen from Fort Garry EMC, presented at the Ministerial Day on July 3, 2015 at Ebenezer Christian Church in Brandon, MB. Thanks to Irma Janzen and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference for addressing this important issue, and for doing so graciously, while challenging us all to carefully consider our beliefs and actions in this area.

Many of us use the term “Mental Illness” and the term “Mental Health Issues” interchangeably. These two terms, however, do not mean the same thing.

To begin, let us clarify the terms. I will use the definitions that Irma Janzen presented in her session:

Mental Illness: refers to an illness such as schizophrenia, bi-polar mood disorder, and clinical depression.

Mental Health Issues: refers to issues in people’s lives that affect how they live. People with good mental health are aware of these issues and deal with them in healthy ways; people who are unaware of their issues or deal with them inappropriately often do not have good mental health. 

Much of the difference between these terms is similar to the difference between general physical health and disease. Some people can be very unhealthy without having a disease. They can eat a lot of fatty, salty, and sugary foods, very few vegetables and engage in very little exercise. Even if they have a high metabolism, and on the outside look quite skinny, their bodies are still quite unhealthy. There has even been a new term coined recently—the term “skinny fat” refers to people who look skinny, but whose internal organs are in the same condition as someone who is very obese, because of the similarity in lifestyle.

Conversely, even people with very healthy diets and lots of exercise can get cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or pretty much any other disease.

Now let’s look at mental illness for a moment. Consider someone who has clinical depression, for instance. There are people with clinical depression who still have excellent mental health practices. 

Let’s consider someone that I will name Bob. He has a strong network of friends, debriefs with appropriate and trustworthy people after difficult times, processes his emotions appropriately, and has a very strong Christian faith that involves much prayer and Bible reading, and still he suffers from clinical depression. He take medication, sees a counsellor, and exercises regularly, all things that help with clinical depression, and Bob leads a very normal life. Because of how Bob deals with his depression, he actually has very good mental health, even though he has to deal with the mental illness of depression. Bob’s mental health practices are better than most people’s, even though he suffers from clinical depression.

Let us consider another scenario, and I will call this person Oliver. Oliver has no diagnosable mental illness. He grew up in poverty, and experienced abuse from someone he had trusted in his teen years. As Oliver grew into a man, he became increasingly angry, both about his lack of opportunities when he was younger due to poverty, and the incidents of abuse. His anger and lack of forgiveness turned into a hardened bitterness and hatred. He seldom lets others get too close to him, and as such has very few people he could consider true friends. He developed problems with authority, and as such has a hard time holding down a job, creating stress for him financially. Though he is married and has children, he remains distant from them, and often feels guilty for not doing a better job at financially providing for his family. Though Oliver has no mental illness, he has very poor mental health.

Though my stories of Bob and Oliver are fictional, they represent many real people in this world. Oliver’s overall mental health was much worse than Bob’s, even though Bob was the one who suffered from a mental illness. I share these stories to help illustrate the difference between mental illness and mental health issues. The difference is important. 

Many people don’t think about their mental health until they get diagnosed with a mental illness. The truth is, however, that most of us could do a better job of caring for our own mental health, regardless of whether or not we have a mental illness. 

All of us will go through seasons that will be more challenging for our mental health, yet we don’t even think about dealing with our mental health because of a stigma that still exists in our society. At Irma Janzen’s session, she started by asking people to raise their hand if they had high cholesterol. A few people raised their hands. Then she asked about other health problems. Others raised their hands. She asked about several other health issues, and each time people raised their hands. Then she told us not to raise our hands for the next question, but to contemplate it silently. She asked, “Now who has suffered from depression?” The room grew silent. Then she asked, “And why did I ask you to leave your hands down?” The answer was clear, and after a few moments of silence someone spoke up, “Because there is still an unhealthy stigma about depression.” Bingo. 

Talking about physical health issues is socially acceptable, but talking about mental health issues suddenly seems too personal. How can it be that talking about the health of our colon is less personal than anything to do with mental health? How can it be that men are more comfortable talking about a vasectomy than about depression? It seems to me that we would do well to talk about our mental health more—to at least become more comfortable admitting to ourselves that we need to care for our mental health just like we need to care for our bodies. 

In Matthew 22:37, Jesus instructs us to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” We talk about guarding our heart. We talk about our souls and our spiritual health. In this verse we are also instructed to love God with all of our mind as well, and while we talk about the health of our heart and soul, we don’t often talk about keeping our minds healthy, beyond controlling our media intake. I would venture to suggest that if we did a better job of managing our mental health, it would also go a long way to help our ability to love God the way we should.

Though we may not be able to change the stigma in our society, each of us can start by changing things in ourselves. We can take better care of our own mental health, we can each stop passing judgement on people struggling with mental health issues or mental illness, and we can work together to take care of ourselves and one another, and thus live out the next passage in Matthew 22, which instructs us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

New Life Christian Fellowship is a community of believers who seek to Reach Up in worship of God, to Reach Over to one another and to Reach Out to the world around us.