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Letter: Mental Health is Not an Illness

“Accept Mental Health as an Illness” reads the headline in a national paper recently. To pretend such a headline does not confuse an already confused society is stupidity at best and irresponsibility at worst.

People are avoidant when it comes to a conversation on mental health. Or there is that rebuttal, “I don’t want to know. It’s nothing to do with me”.

There was this teacher, I asked, “How do you explain to your students when they ask what mental health is?” She replied, “It’s like catching a cold.’’

And there was this person who had just attended a five-day mental-health workshop. I asked, “So what’s mental health?” she replied, “Depression”. Clearly, there is that huge suspicion that mental health is erroneously equated as mental illness.

Mental health is a big topic and defining it is not easy. I did try to elucidate this through writing a book on “how to take charge of our mental health”. In it, I explicitly laid out what mental health is and what mental illness is. Above all, I emphasised the MUST to seek help and Talk when “trapped with mental illness”, otherwise fatality sometimes sets in.

On mental health, the book touches on:

# Psychological needs: The foundation of mental health. From early development, parents have to ensure that children’s psychological needs are met. The five universal psychological needs are:

            1. To be loved.                2. To be heard.                     3. To achieve.

            4.  To belong.                  5.  To believe in something.

A professor with the Early Development Council, Malaysia emphasised, “The child could go out to murder someone and will not bat an eyelid if his psychological needs are not met”.

Mental health is best described as a cluster of enduring attributes or personal moral qualities. Consider these enduring attributes – empathy, attachment, relationships. What transforms people in life is loving and caring relationships.

It follows that mental health is a way of life. It is our personal felt sense. An individualistic journey through life. It is crystal clear that mental health is NOT a mental illness!

As per the Oxford dictionary, the word “mental” means:

A simple explanation is mental health – a mind that is healthy (and is associated with the above qualities). And mental illness has none of the above qualities, absolutely.

(Doubtless on its OWN, colloquially, the word MENTAL means affected with a mental disorder.)

Mental illness is when the mind is sick. Here the feelings, intelligence and behaviour are sick. As a result, unacceptable behaviour ensues. Unacceptable behaviours are many, examples:

Flies into a rage (unprovoked) and violently hitting out on himself or on others.

Isolate himself; locks himself in a dark room for lengthy periods – resulting in grossly poor personal hygiene, and poor physical health.

Cannot reality-test life’s situations; for example, will insist that a red rose is black.

To better understand mental illness, reflect on the following:

In psychiatry, numerous causes are linked with this. Psychiatry = study and treatment of Mental Illness.

Yes, the root causes of mental illness are many. As a Malaysian professor in psychiatry said, “Do not associate psychiatry with psychoses – madness/gila* but to focus on Stressors that contribute to mental illness. Only with this paradigm shift can there be health for all Malaysians”. This is the Social Model of mental illness.

On this note, people need to be aware that STRESSORS that befall us are deadly. All these can be referred to as “problems of living”, and when a person lacks the skills proper feelings, intelligence to deal with these, mental health is the end result.

Another pointer: why is STIGMA equated with mental health? (Which seems to be the case). Stigma = definite characteristics of some illness. And mental health is NOT an illness!

Next, let us explore the types of stressors:

SITUATIONAL stressors (these are drastic events externally imposed on us), such as exam pressure, loss of job, poverty.

MATURATIONAL stressors (brought about during developmental years and the different changes as we go through life), such as first pregnancy, teenage development, retirement.

All these can be reflected on as, as aforementioned, “problems of living”; and when one lacks the skills, proper feelings and intelligence to deal with these, mental illness comes about.

Mental Illness is always seen on a CONTINUUM: from the mild-end onto the severe-end. When one is at the mild-end and if one fails to seek help and talk (this is crucial) fatality can be the end result.

I repeat: Mental health is not an illness.

It is also confusing when writers use multiple terms to describe mental illnesses. It is not uncommon that in a short write-up there will be, for example, mental health issues, mental health problems, mental health disorders all dovetailing each other. I suspect that readers will question: “Do they mean the same thing?” This adds confusion to an already confused society.

Yet nothing tops this: “Accept mental health as an illness”.

With the sweep of the pen, a catastrophic wave of confusion further entraps an already confused society!!!

I hope that people reading this will begin to understand and know what mental health really is.

Betty Ong

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