Mental health, Mental Illness, Spirituality

So, in this blog post (and the video that will go along with it, at the bottom of this post), I’d like to talk about the difference between mental health and mental illness, and why that matters in a spiritual context.

Mental health and mental illness often get confused together, called the same thing, and mish-mashed together by the general populace. But! They are not the same thing at all.

Mental health relates to your mental well-being. This is: “our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us.” SOURCE

Meanwhile, “A mental illness is an illness the affects that way people think, feel, behave, or interact with others.” SOURCE

So, when someone is talking about their mental health, they’re talking about their moods, how they’re feeling, and how they can cope and interact with things. But when it comes to mental illness, one is talking about symptoms that are debilitating, crippling, and are diagnosed as things like depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. SOURCE

Now, mental health and mental illness are NOT the same thing, but they are related. There’s this really useful image right here, that explains a whole lot, at least to me. SOURCE

The Mental Health/Illness Continuum

Basically, mental health and mental illness are linked upon an axis. Mental health is the ‘up and down’, while mental illness is the sideways ‘left and right’. Or the y and x axis, if you feel like calling them that.

This means that one can have poor mental health without it being a mental illness, and vice versa.

Personally, I think I have pretty good mental health, at least in some aspects. I’m grateful, I like to see the positive aspects of things, and I try and be mindful (try being the key word, haha). But this good mental health does not imply no mental illness, as the diagram shows, as one can have good mental health while having a serious mental illness.

Now, what does this have to do with spirituality?

Well, because of the confusion of mental health and mental illness, people tend to assume that spirituality can heal it all. But, at least in my perspective and from what I’ve understood of the mental health and mental illness divide, spirituality can only affect mental health (outside of it being a miracle).

Now, there are plenty of great articles out there about how spirituality affects mental health. If this interests you, I encourage you to read up on them!

In my opinion, spiritual practices can help foster things like gratitude, positive thoughts, and a sense of connection with the world and promote happier and more fulfilling social connections. But these are things that fall under the mental health category, not mental illness.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a reputable scholarly article about spirituality healing a mental illness. This is because mental illness is not dependent upon mental health or happiness or gratitude. Your outlook, gratitude, prayer, and positivity can all be on point and great, but you can still have a mental illness. This is because mental illness is, well, an illness, and not dependent upon our mental health.

Now, why is this distinction important?

Here’s the thing: because people confuse mental health and mental illness, they think that mental illness can be prayed away, meditated away, etc, etc, etc,.

But mental illness is an illness based in neurology! Unless one believes that their spirituality will heal a broken leg, I don’t see why it would heal mental illness. In my opinion, it’s a similar experience, a similar required amount of ‘spiritual woo woo’ and energy healing.

Another important point in this distinction of mental health and mental illness is that people confuse which one they had, and then go on to believe and assert that prayer or other spiritual practices did, in fact, heal an illness. In fact, they believe that’s what happened to them!

However, a person suffering from a mental illness will often not be able to function and perform the mental health practices, nor will they see any positive results, as their problems are neurological in nature, not mental health related.

This mix-up between mental health and mental illness ends up placing a huge amount of pressure upon a person with mental illness. Because spiritual practices are so beneficial to those with mental health issues and because there is no distinction between mental health and mental illness, there becomes an expectation that spirituality will be able to heal a mental illness. Furthermore, as these practices ‘worked’ for those without mental illness, the blame for the lack of success becomes placed not upon the process (because it has been ‘proven’ to work), but upon the person with the mental illness.

In cases like this, the person with a mental illness who isn’t achieving results is often seen as not being ‘spiritual’ enough, or not trying ‘hard’ enough. This is very damaging.

Here’s a link to the video I made where I discuss this, for those who prefer videos to written material!