Symptoms and strengths: Mental illness versus mental health

Through counselling and medication, we’re doing decently well at reducing mental illness, but what about cultivating mental health?

It can be safely said that awareness of mental illness is growing. Thanks to many widespread efforts like Bell’s “Let’s Talk” campaign, an increasing number of people are aware of the basics of mental illness.

These days, most people recognize the signs of illnesses like anxiety and depression. There is still a lot of work to do in this area, but we seem to be making progress as a society. These disorders are more common than we might think, and if we are going to overcome them, we first need to notice them. Once they are noticed, medicine and psychology have a range of treatments geared towards reducing them.

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But there is a big gap across the fields of medicine and psychology.

Would you agree that “an absence of symptoms equals mental health?” The latest science does not agree. Having no symptoms does not necessarily mean that you are healthy. This is an important insight, given that most mainstream treatments are only set up to reduce symptoms. Through counselling and medication, we’re doing decently well at reducing mental illness, but what about cultivating mental health? The big gap is all about this idea of what a healthy mind is and healthy relationships are actually like.

Only in the last thirty years or so has psychology been looking into this, which is a relatively short time considering that western psychology is over 100 years old. The concept of well-being is something I talked about in a previous article. It is enough to say that we now know a fair bit about how a healthy mind works.

Think about how this might change the way you think about yourself or someone you know. If you are experiencing some of the hallmarks of depression, you might go to a doctor and they might give you an official diagnosis. You become defined, by yourself and the people helping you, as depressed or someone with depression. Everyone’s energy goes into knocking that depression out.

This is how it usually goes, but thanks to some of the newer cutting edges of psychology, the picture can become much bigger. In this picture, your mental illness is only half of it, with your mental health being the other half. This opens up so much possibility. How else could you be defined, besides by your depression? Maybe by your strengths. This would balance out everyone’s perspective of who you are, giving us a better understanding of you as a whole person – with assets as well as challenges.

Strengths are now being researched as scientifically as disorders are. One example of this work is the VIA Institute on Character, which has researched and classified the range of strengths we can have. They have a free test you can take at viacharacter.org. It will rank your strengths by how developed they are for you, and how much you use them. Don’t you think this would be a much more empowering way to define yourself, instead of merely by your weaknesses?

We don’t need to ignore our weaknesses, but we at least need to balance our perspective by also paying attention to our strengths. These are the parts of us that we can be proud of and offer to the world. And it’s not just about feeling better, but also being more effective.

Psychology is catching up, both in research and practice. Counsellors like myself are using new methods of helping people who are coping with mental illness. Some examples of these fresh tools are gratitude journaling, self-compassion exercises and exploring our values. When we figure out what we excel at and what is meaningful to us, we can use that knowledge to help us cope with our weaknesses. This is making treatment both more effective and enjoyable.

The next time you encounter mental illness, whether for yourself or for someone you know, don’t forget the other half of the situation; what’s going on with your or that other person’s mental health.

When you come up against challenges, don’t forget that you have assets too.

– Alex Rogowsky is a Registered Professional Counsellor practicing in Brandon. This column is the final installment of a three-part series on mental health.

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