Not Everything Is a Mental Illness
by Vanessa Bruce Little
Youth today – and parents too – know far more about mental health and mental illness than past generations. Awareness campaigns, among other initiatives, have raised the profile of mental illness both in Canada and worldwide.
As a society, we often assume that awareness is a good thing – that it increases identification of people with mental illness, and consequently, allows them to access treatment and improve. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. These public service announcements (PSAs) actually seem to confuse the issue further. Rather than the people who need help seeking treatment, we’re seeing that the people seeking help are those who don’t actually need professional treatment – and that those who do need the help are actually seeking help less. In other words, the exact opposite of what these PSAs are hoping to accomplish.
Part of this issue stems from the fact that awareness without understanding can be just as harmful as no awareness at all. People know that mental illness is a problem, but not what mental illness actually is. Many of us have a very superficial understanding of Anxiety or Depression (and all mental illnesses) – and consequently, start to label any negative emotion as a potential sign of a mental illness – which is certainly not the case. As a result, kids are being labeled as having an Anxiety Disorder or Depression, when in reality, their negative emotions are not only normal but expected (e.g. a reaction to an upcoming test or the death of a family pet). A first step to understanding mental illness is understanding that not everything is a mental illness; in fact, very little is.
Negative emotions are not only normal but healthy for kids and youth to experience. We don’t want to shield kids from experiencing negative emotions because it deprives them of the opportunity to grow and develop healthy coping strategies for later life. No one lives a life without low patches – there will always be emotional ups and downs – and now is the perfect time for someone to learn how to cope with these emotions in healthy and productive ways. If a child has had every problem pushed out of their way for fear of them feeling sad or anxious, they will enter adulthood without having practiced any of the coping skills necessary to successfully navigate independent life. Allow your child experience highs and lows. Your job is to help your child learn to navigate those stressors, not to remove the stressors completely from their life or to label a normal reaction as something much more problematic and concerning.
Over the next few months, we will be sharing overviews of the most common mental illnesses in adolescence. These will be short snapshots of the illness, but more information on each disorder can be found at teenmentalhealth.org. As you read through each one, remember that most negative emotions are not a sign of a mental illness, but if you are concerned about your child, talk to your child’s doctor.
Vanessa Bruce Little is the Knowledge Translation Lead at TeenMentalHealth.org (IWK Health Centre/Dalhousie University), a role for which she relies heavily on her background in Clinical Psychology, clinical training, and experience working with youth and families with behavioural, emotional, and social issues. In addition to developing the content of many of Teen Mental Health’s resources, Vanessa also coordinates large-scale projects and supervises students from a variety of disciplines. She strongly believes that you have to communicate in a way people will “hear” and that the quality of the content is irrelevant if your audience can’t understand it.