Mental health issues remain one of the most prevalent and least understood areas of concern in society.
Wednesday was World Mental Health Day, so the Nechako Rotary Club brought in Kim Dixon to give its members a wake-up call on mental health and illness.
Dixon is the regional manager of F.A.M.I.L.I.E.S. - the Family Alliance on Mental Illness - Leaders in Involvement, Empowerment and Support - and the B.C. Schizophrenia Society for Prince George and the Northern Interior.
She stressed the difference between mental health and mental illness.
Mental health is more than just not having a mental illness. It is about individuals being able to cope with life's stressful challenges and think and act on opportunities to make positive contributions to themselves and the community.
Mental illness, on the other hand, is a medical problem, where a specific disorder has been identified.
Putting them on an axis, as Dixon did in her presentation, opens the door to two possibilities often not considered - people with positive mental health fighting a mental illness and people with poor mental health but no mental illness.
Poor mental health over a long period often precedes mental illness. Our brains, like our bodies, pay a steep price for extended poor mental health, with physical and chemical changes causing harm and leading to illness.
These people are not just damaging themselves, they cost employers in extra sick days and lost productivity, not to mention the personal cost borne by their friends and families.
Meanwhile, the people with positive mental health but fighting mental illness are also largely invisible but are heading in the right direction, in their personal and professional lives. These people recognize their illness and are taking active steps to cope, whether through medication, therapy and/or other treatments.
Dixon stressed a whole-body approach to the idea of mental health. Ongoing physical problems, such as back pain and arthritis, for example, especially if they are moderate to severe and chronic, can decrease mental health and bring on mental illness.
In his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust, former Wall Street trader and now Cambridge behavioural scientist John Coates looks at how biochemistry and environmental stimulus shape our mental health.
Coates uses an inverted U to explain it. Success breeds further success, what Coates calls "the winning effect" to explain what he observed in his studies of his former colleagues in the financial sector. On the happy side of the inverted-U, there are extended periods of success but too much of this for too long creates hubris and with it a willingness to take on increased risk. We start to believe we can do no wrong, especially if some of those successes came unexpectedly, further confirming our status as deserving of continued good fortune.
On the other side of that inverted-U is the downward spiral of failure. One failure brings on another, even worse than the preceding one. Enough failures bring "learned helplessness," where opportunities to succeed once again are missed because the belief in unending failure has taken hold.
Those with poor mental health are constant passengers on this roller coaster, taking everyone who knows them along on these manic rides between glorious good times and downward despondency.
Those with better mental health smooth out the highs and the lows. They still have good and bad days, but very few good days are great and very few bad days are awful.
Coates goes into great detail to explain how much of this happens unconsciously and how our conscious minds can weave a story about how well we manage stress in our personal and professional lives, even as the doctor diagnoses us with ulcers and high blood pressure. That's our body telling us our whole body, including our brain, is hurting.
Mental health, like physical health, is something we take for granted at great risk.
Considering one in two adults battle mental illness at some point in their lifetime, it's a risk we can't ignore.