EDITORIAL: Mind your language

Three-quarters of lifelong mental illnesses emerge between the ages of 18 and 24. By age 25, 20 per cent of Canadians will have developed a mental illness.

As students, we ought to be aware of our mental health and learn strategies to maintain it. But what does that entail?

Some mental health awareness initiatives will tell you that getting eight hours of sleep, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and petting a few dogs here and there is good for your mental health. And they’re not wrong.

But what they won’t tell you is that while mental health and mental illness are important and related, they are not the same thing.

Mental health is a general term for the condition of a person’s psychological and emotional well-being. Everyone has mental health. The status of it changes regularly.

A mental illness is a set of persistent symptoms that affect your ability to function and may decrease your mental health quality. This distinction matters.  

Mental illnesses are as numerous and varied as physical illnesses, yet the term “mental health” is often used interchangeably with “mental illness,” which can end up isolating mentally ill students.

When the phrase “mental health” is used in place of “mental illness,” it further stigmatizes the latter. It allows for initiatives meant to improve mental health on campus to ignore the effects of mental illness on one’s mental health, and to continue as though simply promoting a healthy lifestyle is enough. It normalizes a generalized approach to all mental illnesses, which is unhelpful.

The impacts of different mental illnesses are kaleidoscopic, as different as a broken bone and a blood disease. Taking the same generalized approach for all mental health problems and illnesses is about as useful as taking the same approach for all physical problems and illnesses.

Again, this distinction matters because not everybody with a mental health problem has a mental illness. It could be a passing issue or it could be a chronic problem that requires a long-term plan and strategizing to manage.

Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness is the first step in realizing the needs of individuals with different mental illnesses, and moving towards accepting those with uncommon mental illnesses.

Using the term “mental health” to homogenize mental health and mental illness might also prevent students from realizing that they are at risk of developing a mental illness. It would instead be more useful to acknowledge that mental illnesses exist, and to help students learn the signs and symptoms of particular mental illnesses, so they can recognize them in themselves and others.

We need to stop using “mental health” like a euphemism and instead acknowledge the role of mental illness in a student’s mental health.

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