Mental Health, Common Sense, and the Unknown

Everyone has a level of physical health which changes over time and as a result of circumstances.

A minority of people are at their peak of physical health, the healthiest they could possibly be.

The majority of people are generally healthy: they don’t have to worry about their physical health as everything is working well enough to live their life.

Minor physical health issues such as colds or aches and pains, are common. They temporarily make life doable but more difficult. People with longer-term minor issues learn to adapt and accommodate around what is tougher for them- perhaps they can usually function at 95% of the generally healthy level .

Major physical health issues can make normal life very difficult, requiring someone to change how they live for a bit and often need a recovery time/ gradual return afterwards.

Then a small percentage of people have chronic, severe physical health issues that mean they either cannot function in a typical life at all, or they need to adapt almost everything about their life to live and function.

Why did I just write that? Everything I’ve just said is common sense. It doesn’t need saying.

But try it again, swapping physical for mental…

Everyone has a level of mental health which changes over time and as a result of circumstances.

A minority of people are at their peak of mental health, the healthiest they could possibly be.

The majority of people are generally healthy: they don’t have to worry about their mental health as everything is working well enough to live their life.

Minor mental health issues are common. They temporarily make life doable but more difficult. People with longer-term minor issues learn to adapt and accommodate around what is tougher for them- perhaps they can usually function at 95% of the generally healthy level .

Major mental health issues can make normal life very difficult, requiring someone to change how they live for a bit and often need a recovery time/ gradual return afterwards.

Then a small percentage of people have chronic, severe mental health issues that mean they either cannot function in a typical life at all, or they need to adapt almost everything about their life to live and function.

Reading the second paragraph feels different to the first- even though it logically shouldn’t. There’s probably a lot of people in the world who have never heard this viewpoint, and some who would disagree with it.

So, why is that?

Part of the reason might be because we know what kind of experiences and feelings mean good and bad physical health. We are taught and shown that colds and headaches are minor issues that can be treated over-the-counter, but a broken leg means needing a professional to help us heal.

We also know the results of many physical symptoms, and how they’ll be resolved.
Going back to the cold, we know it means feeling ill for a few days, but that it will usually be over by the next week with no lasting effect. That broken leg means going to a hospital and getting a cast, then it means having to live slightly differently for the ~two months of recovery.

We also know what counts as an emergency– at what point we should say “someone else needs to know about this”. Then, we have some idea of what will happen after- either from media deigned to inform about how medicine works, or from tv shows about hospitals.

With mental health, everything is much less clear.

What kind of feelings and thoughts are a sign of a mental health issue, as opposed to typical feelings? The line can be pretty blurry there, and the answer depends on each person.

If it is a mental health issue, how long will it take to be resolved? That depends on the issue, the circumstances, the person, and on the services available to help them. No-one can give an honest answer to that question.

What kind of feelings count as an emergency?
There are some clearer answers here; the obvious being feeling suicidal or homocidal, or feeling like you have no control over what you’re feeling. Yet there are still grey areas there as well.

What will happen if a person goes to a hospital because of a mental health crisis?

This is also unfortunately unknown. There aren’t really tv shows or non-fiction depictions that allow any kind of familiarity with these ideas. If someone realises they need emergency help, they’ll usually have no clue what’s about to happen if they ask for it- which isn’t going to reassure them and could put people off of asking for help entirely.

In some countries (hi, England), you can sit in the waiting room for a few hours, wait in a bed for a while, be asked some questions by a psychologist and then be discharged at 3am because they can’t do anything. In other countries, people can be sectioned (committed involuntarily) for turning up to the hospital expressing themselves in the exact same way. Doctors can be compassionate and helpful, or they can be dismissive. They may arrange for you to see someone else in a few days time to follow up on how you’re doing, or they may say nothing.

So, people don’t really have any way of knowing what thoughts and feelings signify a mental health issue, and what happens if they begin to experience one. This adds a layer of fear, confusion and other-world-ness over everything mental health-related, that needs to be lessened for talking about mental health to be easier.

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