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Why We Must Treat Mental Health as a Sliding Scale

I was sitting in a clinical doctor’s office, watching the clock slowly tick. The man opposite me stopped scanning the paper in front of him, pushed his glasses up his nose and looked up to meet my eyes. “Are you depressed, Miss Lyons?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to answer but no response came. In all honesty, I wasn’t entirely sure.

Recently, I had once again been feeling the creeping tide of hopelessness, the apathy, the near constant self-critical narrative. All the signs of an oncoming storm. Yet, I also felt occasional moments of blinding happiness, like brazen golden flashes amongst black clouds. I still wanted to write, read, laugh, play snooker. I hadn’t lost interest in my passions and I could still drag myself out of bed.

It was more that I was at a crossroads; one wrong turn from sliding down into the grey fog that had been a part of my life for the past decade, one right turn from getting it together and pressing onwards.

“I don’t know,” I replied. It was the only truthful response I could give.

I was sent on my way with a brief, “I think you can handle this.” Part of me felt like I could, part of me was still very unconvinced. It’s a medical inconvenience when people’s experiences don’t quite fit into the prescribed binary; either you’re sick, or you’re not. Physical health, for the most part, fits this binary well. Quite rightly, doctors only treat those who are unwell and don’t prescribe things like antibiotics to those who don’t need them.

Unfortunately, mental health is not the same. It’s not an either-or question. Mental health is a sliding scale, and treating it as such could provide a much needed revolution in the way think about it. I have met people that have occasional panic attacks, but don’t have generalized anxiety disorder. I have met people who exist on the cusp of depression, but aren’t quite far enough gone to be diagnosed as such. But often, such cases are left out of the discussion, left out of the reach of help.

It’s easy to understand why. Mental health services are already overstretched, unable to cope with the endemic crisis our society produces. And yet, I can’t help but feel that the crisis could be abated if we treated those who were teetering on the edge, just getting by, just coping, as we do those who have crossed the “mental health horizon.”

It’s time to break the binary and totally rethink the way we treat, talk about and prevent mental health problems. So, where do we begin?

One in four of us will struggle with some form of mental health issue in our lifetime, showing that anyone, from any walk of life, has the potential to develop them. We should look at the problem under these terms. We must begin to see mental health as something that everyone has, just as we all know that everyone has physical health that can occasionally take a turn for the worse. By beginning with the assumption that mental health is something common to all, even if not everyone has mental health problems, we have the freedom to talk openly about how we’re doing upstairs. This will also help to break the stigma that keeps so many struggling in silence, as mental health issues will no longer be other, but instead viewed as a normal part of the human health experience.

Furthermore, by acknowledging that mental health is something everyone has, people may begin to treat it as they do their physical health. To retain physical health, people will often watch their diet, their exercise regime, their habits. However, what many don’t realize is that these factors are an integral part of mental health as well. Just as a person can train for a marathon, a person might also be able to train their brain to think positively.

Part of the mental health revolution that is so desperately needed is people treating and thinking about their mind in the same manner as their body. Prevention causes far less costs, both financial and human, than treatment. For instance, if doctors offices and hospitals stocked leaflets talking about how to take care of the mental, in the same way they do the physical, then perhaps mental health issues could be prevented before they even have a chance to take hold. People would know what to be aware of, what to look out for, and most importantly, what to do to help themselves.

Seeing mental health as a scale would also help stop the assumptions that all mental health problems manifest themselves in the same way. Mental health looks and feels differently to each individual, and blanket terms like depression and anxiety don’t always leave room to capture the nuances. One of the main reasons I manage to claw my way back to sanity time and time again is because I am so aware of my own symptoms — the encroaching darkness, the odd physical and mental sensations that the unholy trinity of anxiety, depression and OCD throws at me. For this reason, I also have become accustomed to certain tips and tricks that work for me, and equally as importantly, the ones that definitely don’t.

Knowing my own mind so intimately allows me to intervene as soon as I feel things heading in a certain darker direction, just as I know if I start sniffing and coughing, I better grab some vitamin C.

Treating mental health as a scale brings with it a wave of positive changes to our society. It will make people realize that even when they are doing well, they should still be taking care of their mind. It will raise awareness of mental health so no one has to struggle in silence. It will break the stigma that mental health only affects “other people.” And finally, it will allow those who don’t fit into the current binary to get the help they need.

With the rates of mental illness increasing year on year, a revolution in the way we think about our minds is urgently needed. This healing process begins with viewing these conditions in a new way; by viewing mental health as a sliding scale.

Follow this journey here.

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Unsplash photo via Tankja Heffner