Phelps: Understanding mental health – and the stigma of mental illness


Defining mental health or its opposite — mental illness — is a daunting task.

Mental health includes our emotional state: how we feel, how we think and our social well-being. It was once believed physical and mental health were separate, but research and increased understanding of how we think and feel has linked mental and physical health.

The brain does not know the difference if an idea is a thought or a real event.

There are many factors that contribute to our mental health. The age-old research question has been: Is this nature or nurture? Nature indicates biological factors such as genes or brain chemistry. Nurture is a result of life experiences like trauma or abuse.

It’s complicated and potentially beyond our control. Sometimes, people living with mental illness are blamed for their condition. Such thinking is misguided. Mental illness is not a choice.

A little history
Prior to the 1800s, there was a separation of mental and physical health. Many cultures — Egyptian, Indian, Greek and Roman, for example — believed mental illness was a form of religious punishment, a demonic possession or a personal problem. During the Middle Ages, the mentally ill were believed to be possessed or in need of religion.

This attitude persisted into the 18th century in the United States, leading to the stigmatization we know today. Most were locked away. In the 1840s, Dorothea Dix lobbied for better living conditions for the mentally ill and for the funding of 32 psychiatric hospitals.

In 1963, deinstitutionalization efforts under the Community Mental Health Centers Act moved care from psychiatric hospitals to local community-oriented centers, to improve quality of life for patients.

The stigma, however, continues to this day, as we fight against the perception of mental illness as a condition that reduces one’s humanity.

What’s normal?
On a continuum from 0 (meaning no indicators of concern) to 10 (a high number of indicators) good mental health is somewhere in the middle.

For most of our lives, due to the circumstances of life in general, we will be outside the norm for depression or mania. Simply put, life is full of ups and downs. The other parameters that stay outside the norm are generally beyond our control and require other interventions.

Medical and psychological definitions depend on a format that applies a number or definition to our condition. They may help determine what’s going on, but they don’t define us.

Mental health has its challenges and, currently, our medical care provides medications that can assist in achieving a balance and enhancing the functionality in our lives.

Unfortunately, those who require medication and begin to feel better with the prescribed medication, often stop taking it. Then, once the individual falls back into the challenges of function, problems occur.

Such a decision makes no sense. Would a diabetic stop taking medication because they had a few good blood sugar readings?

Mental health is as important as your physical health, and you should pay attention to both. There is a balance to maintain and there’s no shame in reaching out for help to do so.

There is no simple explanation. Health is very complex and subject to many factors. Understanding why a person has a certain behavior includes the complexity of many of these factors.

Start with the simplest of resources. Consult with your physician and mental health professional to meet your needs.

May your families remain safe from danger.

Harriet Phelps, Psy.D., is a volunteer with Be Awesome Youth Coalition.

This column was first published in the August edition of InMaricopa magazine.