Tips with Trish: Brain health or mental health?

By Tricia Borelli (TheLorian)

Dear Trish, 

I know that October is Mental Illness Awareness month. Is that different than Mental Health Awareness month? I have also been hearing more and more about brain health being the new, more appropriate term to replace mental health. What are your thoughts on this? 

Signed,  

Just Curious 

Trish says, 

Yes, October is Mental Illness Awareness month. It is a time when mental illness is highlighted in an effort to promote awareness and decrease the stigma. Mental Health Awareness month is a little different and is generally recognized during the month of May. It can be a little confusing because people use mental health and mental illness interchangeably. They are increasingly being used as if they mean the same thing when they do not.  

Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has physical health. By taking care of our mental and physical health we do things like get enough sleep, eat healthy, and exercise. We also try to take care of our minds by associating with positive people that bring us joy. Taking time out when we need a break at work or going on a walk when we have been cooped up in an office or room for an extended period of time is also a good way to practice self-care. Some people choose reading a book, listening to music or praying when taking some time for themselves. All of us can practice good mental health care.   

A mental illness is an illness that affects the way people think, feel and behave. Some mental disorders like bipolar, autism or schizophrenia fit a biological model in a relatively clear-cut way while other mental illnesses do not. Disorders like depression and anxiety may have multiple causes in addition to biological. Some mental health diagnosis’ like PTSD or bulimia, for example, likely have contributing environmental factors like trauma or sexual abuse. Either way, the American Psychology Association says that there is no “one-size fits all approach” to mental illness.   

The World Health Organization has been known to say, “There is no health without mental health.” Because even though not all people will experience mental illness in their life, every person will struggle with their mental well-being just like we do with our physical health from time to time.  Mental illnesses are real and require attention as does our overall mental health. It is important to keep our emotions, thoughts, and behavior in check whether we have a diagnosis or not.   

Brain Health is a term that has come to light more recently. Many people with mental health issues say that the social stigma of mental illness has made it difficult for them to seek help. Some feel that it implies weakness or that is it the result of one’s poor life choices versus a physiological problem that affects the brain. These people say that the discrimination that they experience from society and from family, friends and employers, can make their challenges even worse (APA, 2018). I tend to agree. Even though we have come a long way in making counseling and seeing a doctor okay for someone struggling with mental health problems, more needs to be done.  

The brain is a very complex organ. It contains billions of neurons that must communicate and work together for the body to function well. Researchers say that mental illnesses are related to the chemical neurotransmitters in the brain. They believe that abnormalities in how particular brain circuits function contribute to the development of many mental illnesses. “Connections between nerve cells along certain pathways or circuits in the brain can lead to problems with how the brain processes information and may result in abnormal mood, thinking perception or behavior,” (WebMD, 2019).

Thankfully, we are much further understanding mental health than we were a century ago, but sadly we still have a long way to go in understanding the interplay among the pathways in the brain that will eliminate the stigma. 

Sincerely, 

Trish  

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Tricia Borelli is the Director of Counseling Services at Loras College. In Tips with Trish, she will answer student questions concerning anything that relates to keeping it together while doing this crazy thing called college. Send questions or comments to Ms. Borelli, Loras Box 100, or to the e-mail address tricia.borelli@loras.edu. All names of those sending questions will be kept confidential.

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