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The Crucial Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

I had a different blog post planned for this week, but it can wait. Our country is still grieving the loss of 14 students and 3 teachers, which is impossible for any parent to ignore. It's also impossible for any psychologist to ignore. I have worked in large public middle and high schools, I have provided school-based mental health services to adolescents, and I am a mother. This past week I’ve been reading, listening, and processing this tragedy from as many perspectives as I can. 

There are so many things for our country to discuss, but as a child and adolescent psychologist, I want to focus on explaining our children’s mental health. What puts children and teens at more or less risk for experiencing loneliness and anger? Which children need more support than others? And, what can we do for our children and their peers in our own communities to prevent such horrific violence? 

My hope is that our children’s overall mental health remains a part of our conversation in America. We must pay close attention, reach out as early as possible for help, and advocate for more accessible mental health care, for everyone

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

These terms are getting thrown around a lot in the media this week and it’s confusing. Someone with mental illness is prone to violence, right? Wrong. In fact, the majority of people with mental illness are not violent. Read more about this here. Violence comes from anger and isolation, not mental illness alone. People who commit violent acts are certainly mentally unwell, which is why our discussion needs to be about our overall mental health and how we provide access to treatment in our schools and communities.

In my work with children and families, I often discuss the difference between mental health and mental illness. I conceptualize mental health in a similar way that I think about physical health. We all need to get enough sleep, exercise, and healthy nutrition for our bodies to function properly. The same is true for our mental health to thrive. We all need to get enough rest, take time to plan a work-life balance, get just the right amount of social interaction that makes us happy, and we need to recognize stress (and take action to adaptively cope with it). We all know when our mental health is suffering. We feel run-down, we feel short-fused, and those around us notice a difference in our behavior. My own generation of parents is just starting to master this self-care stuff, which means we are just beginning to model it for our children.

The Overlapping Risk Factors

Our mental health can be impacted by trauma, both minimal and extreme, and can begin as early as infancy with our attachment to our caregivers. A child’s mental health is then impacted by their home life, their parent-child relationship, their peer interactions, their academic successes or challenges, and other life experiences that shape their human experience. Everyone's human experience is impacted by their neurodevelopmental profile, such as intelligence, or an individual difference that may include a learning disability, ADHD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). On the other hand, mental illness refers to a psychiatric disorder that occurs separately from trauma and neurodevelopmental disorders. Our mental health describes our overall mental wellness where all three of these can intertwine. 

While psychiatric disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders are most often due to specific brain wiring, trauma-inducing experiences are caused by outside factors that happen throughout childhood and life. If present, each of these areas impact our mental health either temporarily or chronically. And when they overlap, children and adolescents are at more risk for not remaining mentally well.

So, while it is true that most people with mental illness do not become violent, we have to acknowledge that children are not raised in a vacuum. We are all the product of complex experiences that are interrelated with our personalities and individual differences. But when areas of concern overlap for our children, we must be paying attention.

The Unspeakable Question

After a young person carries out such a violent act, the media usually digs through their history and pieces together a profile grasping for how such actions came to be. This curiosity stems from our need to cope by trying to understand and prevent more pain in the future. But when the accused are highlighted in the media, anxious parents of children with several risk factors will ask me the most heart-wrenching question: Could my child ever be capable of such violence? While we cannot predict the future, we can discuss the level of risk factors, we can develop plans for effective therapy, and we can closely monitor symptoms by having a strong relationship with the child.

Pay Attention to the Power of Connection

Our children are growing up in a world very different from the one we all knew just 20-30 years ago. The internet has changed everything and we continue to lack a solid road map for monitoring social media and video game use for our kids. 

However, one thing remains the same: Human beings are wired with a desire to connect and belong. When a parent and baby smile at each other, they are connecting and they belong to each other. When a coach gives his team a pep talk before the big game, they are connecting and they are in it together. And when a teacher reaches out to better understand a struggling student, they are connecting with the hope that the student feels understood and accepted. 

If our children don’t have something positive and loving to connect and belong to, they will likely find a negative influence elsewhere. So, connect with your child and help them remember that they belong. When you hear about a classmate or friend struggling to belong, include them and their family. When you hear about a parent who is overwhelmed and feeling isolated, find a way to connect with them. It's not just about the children; it's about their families and it's about our communities. We're all in this together. 

So, let's begin. Show up. Make a connection. Watch a child smile. Feels good, right? Repeat.

Stay Connected!

~Dr. Emily

**All content provided is protected under applicable copyright, patent, trademark, and other proprietary rights. All content is provided for informational and education purposes only. No content is intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological diagnosis, advice or treatment. Information provided does not create an agreement for service between Dr. Emily W. King and the recipient. Consult your physician regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to you or your child's symptoms or medical condition. Children or adults who show signs of dangerous behavior toward themselves and/or others, should be placed immediately under the care of a qualified professional.**


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