What’s normal, what’s not?

Dr Sacrifice Chirisa Mental Health Matters
Understanding what is considered normal mental health can be tricky. See how feelings, thoughts and behaviours determine mental health and how to recognise if you or a loved one needs help. What is the difference between mental health and mental illness? Sometimes the answer is clear, but often the distinction between mental health and mental illness isn’t so obvious. For example, if you are afraid of giving a speech in public, does it mean you have a mental health condition or a run-of-the-mill case of nerves? Or, when does shyness become a case of social phobia?

Below I will help you to understand how mental health conditions can be identified. It is often difficult to distinguish between normal mental health from mental illness because there’s no easy test or laboratory test to show if something is wrong. Also, mental health conditions can be mimicked by physical disorders. Mental health conditions are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms, as well as on how much the condition affects your daily life. For example, a mental health condition can affect your:

● Behaviour — Obsessive hand-washing, unprovoked violence, refusing to eat, hoarding garbage or drinking too much alcohol might be a sign of a mental health condition.

● Feelings — Sometimes, a mental health condition is characterised by a deep or ongoing sadness, euphoria or anger.

● Thinking — Delusions; fixed beliefs that aren’t changeable in light of conflicting evidence or thoughts of suicide might be symptoms of a mental health condition.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that explains the signs and symptoms of several hundred mental health conditions. Psychiatrists use the DSM to diagnose everything from anorexia to voyeurism and if necessary, determine appropriate treatment. To determine if you have a mental health condition, a psychiatrist assesses your symptoms, including when they began and how they have affected your life.

A psychiatrist will ask about:
● Your perceptions — The extent to which your signs and symptoms affect your daily activities can help determine what is normal for you. For instance, you might realise that you aren’t coping well or that you do not want to do the things you used to enjoy. You might feel sad, hopeless or discouraged.

If your sadness has a specific cause, such as divorce, your feelings could be a normal, temporary reaction. However, if you have symptoms that are severe or do not go away, you could have depression. You might also need to have a physical exam to rule out any underlying health conditions.

● Others perceptions — Your perceptions alone might not give you an accurate picture of your behaviour, thoughts or ability to function. Other people in your life can help you understand whether your behaviour is normal or healthy.

For example, if you have bipolar disorder, you might think your mood swings are just part of the normal ups and downs of life. Your thoughts and actions, however, might appear abnormal to others or cause problems at work, in relationships or in other areas of your life. Each mental health condition has its own signs and symptoms. In general. However, professional help might be needed if you experience:

● Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns

● An inability to cope with problems or daily activities

● Strange or grandiose ideas

● Excessive anxiety

● Prolonged depression or apathy

● Thinking or talking about suicide

● Substance abuse

● Extreme mood swings or excessive anger, hostility or violent behaviour

Many people, who have mental health conditions consider their signs and symptoms a normal part of life or avoid treatment out of shame or fear. If you are concerned about your mental health, do not hesitate to seek advice. Consult your family doctor, who will refer you to a psychiatrist. I endeavour to demystify mental illness and the role of a psychiatrist.

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