What is Mental health?

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect not only individuals, but their families as well”- Glenn Close, American actor, singer and film producer.

Close is right in saying that in order to lead a free-spirited life, loaded with happiness and gaiety, we must possess a sound physical and mental health. Each part of our body, including the brain, is prone to encountering certain problems in functioning. Just as we approach a specialist for treatment of a physical ailment, we need to seek help and talk openly about any complication in the functioning of the brain.

Mental health comprises emotional, psychological, behavioral and cognitive well-being of an individual. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

Unlike the general perception, mental health is not solely about brain and its impairment, but is much more complex in nature. Frequently associated with increased learning, creativity and productivity, more pro-social behavior and positive social relationships, mental health has a direct impact on the physical health and life expectancy of a person.

People often tend to confuse mental health with mental illness. However, we need to understand the difference to be able to shove away the roadblocks in the way of a healthy and happy life. Mental health talks about the overall well-being of psychological state, while mental illnesses are medically diagnosable conditions caused due to significant impairment of cognitive, affective or relational abilities of a person. Mental illnesses are a common health concern. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults (18 percent) in the United States experience a mental illness in a given year.

Types of mental illness

Ranging from mild to severe, there are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, recognized under the guidelines of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental disorders. However, below are some commonly prevalent mental disorders:

Anxiety disorders: Characterized by persistent fear, worry, nervousness and skepticism, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental conditions. Further categorized into generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias, anxiety disorders are marked by rapid heartbeat and sweating.

Mood disorders: As the name suggests, a person suffering from mood disorder experiences frequent mood fluctuations. Mood disorders include depression, bipolar disorder and cyclothymic disorder.

Psychotic disorders: Characterized by the symptoms of hallucination and delusion, schizophrenia is a common example of psychotic disorders. While hallucinations are marked by seeing and hearing things that do not exist, delusions are false fixed beliefs that the patient considers as truth despite contradictions.

Eating disorders: Eating disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses amongst teens. There are three types of eating disorders – anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Anorexia is characterized by shunning food completely in the fear of gaining weight, bulimia involves excessive eating to end up purging in order to shed the body weight. Binge eating, on the other hand, is defined as compulsive overeating, often followed by a strong urge to cope with unwanted emotions or stress.

Personality disorders: People with personality disorders exhibit traits that are different and distressing. These symptoms often cause problems in work, school or social relationships. Antisocial personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder are common types of personality disorders.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Although it comes under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, the high prevalence of the condition makes it worth mentioning separately. PSTD results from experiencing a traumatic or horrifying experience such as assault (physical, sexual, emotional or mental), deaths and loss, natural disaster or war. The disorder is characterized by recurrent thoughts, flashbacks and memories of the event that cause a constant distress and discomfort.

Causes of mental illnesses

The exact cause of any mental illness is not known. However, studies have identified several of them to occur due to combination of biological, psychological, genetic and environmental factors. Mental illnesses due to biological factors can result from impaired development of the brain or its related component. In case of genetics, mental illness is not a trait passed from parents to the child directly, rather the parent passes on the genes that make the other generation susceptible to mental disorders like depression.

Meanwhile, some of the environmental factors behind mental illnesses are chronic stressors, traumatic experience and addiction to illicit drugs or alcohol. In case of PTSD, though the problem occurs due to a traumatic event, the person has to be genetically predisposed to developing the condition as everybody exposed to trauma does not necessarily develop PSTD.

Treatment for mental illness

With advancement in science and technology, scientists have been able to identify treatments for majority of the mental illnesses. Various methods, ranging from conventional medication to new age technology-based therapies, can be used to treat a single mental disorder. Some of the common methods of treatments are:

Psychotherapy: It is one of the most widely used methods to treat mental disorders. Focused on altering the thoughts and behavior pattern by exploring them in deep, there are various kinds of psychotherapies to cure mental disorders. Some of the commonly used psychotherapies are- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy (ET) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Medication: Depending on the mental disorder, specialists recommend different types of medication, such as antidepressants, antianxiety and tranquilizers. However, most of these do not cure the disease outright, they only help subside the symptoms and discomfort caused by the illness. According to experts, medication along with psychotherapy have been identified to yield the best results.

Support groups: These dedicated groups organize meetings and get-togethers to provide an amicable environment to patients so that they can open up about their symptoms and experiences. These meetings help in building a camaraderie amongst patients, thereby, giving them support to cope with the illness.

In spite of all the available intervention and help, the number of people seeking medical treatment is almost negligible compared to the number of people suffering from mental illness. It is primarily, because of the prevalent stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illnesses. Since the beginning of civilization, mental illnesses have been associated with evils, witch crafts and black magic.

These age-old myths are so much engrained in the psyche of the people that they tend to mask their rationality and understanding. Such a situation often gives way to shortsightedness that forces the society to shun and isolate those suffering from mental disorders. In the given circumstance, patients of mental problems fear a boycott in the society or a dent in their social image. As a result, many of them try self-medicating with illicit drugs and alcohol, which either worsens their situation or leads to addiction.

Additionally, many people also associate mental illness with criminal activities. According to general perception, mentally ill people are more likely to commit grievous crimes, such as theft and murder, and thus, are a threat to the social welfare. Such ideologies deprive many from their rightful treatment.

It is time to move ahead in life and change our thought process after learning and understand the scientific basis behind various mental problems. It is important to respect the creation of God in the form of human beings and shun primitive ideologies. Mental illness is like any other physical ailment that needs proper cure and treatment for recovery. Thus, a sound mental health is an essential requirement for holistic development and overall well-being.

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