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The difference between mental illness and health

Maya McDonald | Fulcrum Contributor

Illustration by Brennan Bova

YOU CAN’T PUT a Band-Aid on your brain. But just like any bone, muscle, or organ in your body, it needs to be kept healthy. Mental health is as central an aspect of overall wellness, as is your blood pressure or the condition of your heart and lungs. Schools, medical organizations, and various media all report on the significance of mental health, but many people are left wondering what exactly is so important about it.

Mental health is often misinterpreted in the media, whether it’s on screen or in a paper or magazine. What is actually being portrayed in many of these media outlets is mental illness. Failure to interact in social settings, unwillingness to perform daily tasks, and attempts of self-harm or suicide are all characteristics of mental illness, not mental health.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), a not-for-profit organization that seeks to identify, define, and categorize mental health, details mental health and its importance. The website includes information on how an individual, based on age, tends to respond to difficulties in learning, personal or family crises, various types of stress, and feelings of sadness, grief, or anger. The CMHA seeks to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and make the focus towards it more positive.

So how do we cultivate mental health? The CMHA identifies mental health as “striking a balance in all aspects of your life: social, physical, spiritual, economic and mental.” As university students, achieving this balance can seem to get more difficult every day. In order to effectively maintain this balance, you should aim to have an active social life, eat the right foods, get enough sleep, manage your finances, and maintain a positive attitude. All this can be a difficult task—trust me, I know. Between being a full-time student and competitive athlete, volunteering, and working part-time, I sometimes feel as if there is no room to create this balance—and I’m sure I’m not the only one. So why don’t more people inquire about how to make this change?

The answer is simple. If something seems to be working alright, people tend to leave well enough alone; and if there is a problem, it can be difficult to seek help, especially in an area shrouded by stereotypes like mental health. Statistics Canada compiled a series of facts and figures about mental illnesses, and they projected “that 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder.” While this number may seem high, very few people who are suffering from the disease actually come forward or identify as having a mental illness.

The fact is, you don’t need to have a mental illness to start seeking methods of improving your mental health. It’s the same way you would eat the proper foods to stay healthy, organize your home and work space to stay focused, or go to the gym to stay in shape—you shouldn’t wait until something becomes chaotic to fix it. You only get one brain, so take good care of it.