Mental health problems can range from relatively minor issues such as anxiety (which can none the less be very disabling) to serious mental breakdowns in which the individual concerned appears to lose totally their grasp of reality. Such problems are often referred to as mental illnesses. However, there has been considerable debate over the years as to whether this is an appropriate terminology. It can also be argued that, presenting such problems as symptoms of an illness tends to lead us down the road of offering medication or other medical solutions to problems which are perhaps best dealt with by other means. This is not to say that medical personnel have no part to play in dealing with mental health problems but rather that their role should not necessarily be seen as the only one, or even a primary one necessarily. We have to be careful not to oversimplify by seeing the medical dimension of personal distress as the be all and end all of mental disorder, as this would mean that we are neglecting other significant sets of issues (psychological and social, for example). In the workplace, serious mental health problems such as psychotic breakdowns are likely to be very rare indeed. However, it is not uncommon for a range of other issues to be very prevalent – for example, depression. Depression is more than just feeling a bit down or a bit miserable. It is a psychological condition which dampens our emotions, has a serious detrimental effect on our ability to think clearly and positively and will often also have an effect on our behaviour (for example, making us very lethargic). In this respect, depression is similar to other mental health problems, in the sense that it affects thoughts, feelings and actions. One very important point to recognise is that mental health problems are often ‘stigmatised’ – that is, they are seen as something to be ashamed of, but this is not necessarily the case. Anyone can experience mental health problems at some time in their life – they are far more common than most people tend to realise. It is therefore very important that we do not become judgemental or apply negative stereotypes to people who are experiencing mental distress or other such mental health problems. If we are not careful, we can create a vicious circle in which the stress brought about by being stigmatised and devalued can add to the mental health problems being experienced, thus making the situation worse. Mental health is a very complex issue and it is strongly contested territory, in the sense that different people have different perspectives on the issues. It is therefore important that you do not oversimplify the situation and rely on ‘commonsense’ assumptions about mental health problems, as these will often be based on discrimination and inappropriate stereotypes. However, whether we think of mental health problems in terms of the narrow, traditional approach (or ‘medical model’) or in much broader terms, the fact remains that mental health problems are very serious matters that can cause a great deal of suffering for all concerned.

Dr Neil Thompson              

Neil’s website and blog are at www.neilthompson.info

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