Mental Health is not the Opposite of Mental Illness

May 1
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mental health awareness month

Every May in the United States, people acknowledge mental health and its importance to a life of wellness. It’s a great thing, because mental health is truly in reach of everyone once people are aware of it and how to enhance it.

Mental Health Exists In Spite of Difficulties

Mental health is vital and goes hand-in-hand with well-being. Mental Health Awareness Month is a time to focus on our sense of life satisfaction, resilience, inner strength, core happiness, stress relief, and the like. Part of this celebration is that these things are in reach of every single one of us. They don’t exist instead of difficulties; they exist in spite of them.

Very recently, I had a conversation with a group of people at a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) office. The mood was one of frustration. The frustration at hand was the idea of choice in life. Can people truly choose how their life goes? Certainly, no one chooses mental illness. Did I choose to sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) then receive diagnoses of anxiety disorders and bipolar 1 disorder? No, I did not. (I will say, though, that it hasn’t been all bad and has helped make me the person I am today, strengths and faults alike.)

It’s clear that mental illness is not, in fact, a choice. It is something that a person has to live with and contend with. Functioning (not intelligence) is often impaired, all areas of life are interfered with, there’s medication and side effects and therapy and missed work or unemployment and impacted relationships and financial hardships and facing stigma and a sense of shame. No wonder no one would choose this!

Even with Mental Illness, We Have Choices

However—and there always seems to be a however—does this mean that having a mental illness means that we have no choices in our lives, no power, no control? That mental illness means someone can’t have mental health?

The answer to that is a resounding NO. It does not mean that at all. We all have choices. Despite the way it sounds, mental illness is not at all the opposite of mental health. Mental health is possible for everyone.

I’ll use myself as an example. I didn’t choose to have a TBI, anxiety disorders, or bipolar disorder. I certainly didn’t chose to do or to live with some of the things that I did as part of these. (That was another component of the discussion I had. Sometimes mental illness makes people act in ways they wouldn’t if the illness weren’t “acting up.” While true, I would argue that people still do have choices after the fact.) Those things can’t be undone. They’re in the past. They don’t, though, affect my choices going forward. I can choose to do things to enhance my mental health and well-being.

One of the most important components of mental health is the idea that we can make choices in our lives, choices in thought, emotion, and behavior. Even in the face of hardship or despair, we can choose little things to, step by step, increase our well-being.

“Choose your attitude” is a common adage. It exists because it’s possible. We can choose. Everyone has a choice and thus can achieve mental health. I’m not naïve. It’s much more complex than just adopting an attitude. But we can adopt an attitude and we can take steps toward well-being. Mental illness is not at all the opposite of mental health.

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