Stress and Mental Illness: Are They One And The Same?
In my previous post I discussed Is Stress A Trigger For Mental Illness? In this post I’m hoping to highlight how stress and severe mental illness are not one and the same.
We all go through periods of stress, where we feel run down, overwhelmed and generally feel like we need a reset button for life. It does have an impact on our mental health, but it isn’t a mental illness.
I have worked with colleagues that have misinterpreted my mental illness as stress, or the more important distinction that I couldn’t handle stress. Comments such as,
“Well, some of us can deal with stress better than others.” and “At least I’m here all the time unlike some people who are always signed off with stress.” Stress was a trigger for my mental illness, bipolar, and yes, I did have to take time off work because of it. It didn’t mean I couldn’t handle stress, it meant I had a severe mental illness that had not been properly diagnosed, or been provided with the proper treatment.
How we effectively deal with stress can be managed through self care techniques and adapting our work/life balance. If someone starts to show signs of mild to moderate depression or anxiety they can seek help such as CBT or other forms of therapy for a short period. Severe mental illness on the other hand, needs much greater intervention. A psychiatrist, hospital admissions, long term medication and therapy. Significant lifestyle changes such as cutting out alcohol may be not advised, but desperately needed. Can you see the difference? Stress in our lives can be managed, if we want to do so; mental illness cannot. Your lifestyle is a choice, mental illness is never chosen. I think it’s important here to highlight one glaringly obvious cause of stress; poverty. This can’t be eradicated by a simple change in lifestyle by the individual. It’s society at large that needs to work towards this. Is there a difference between the stresses of the upper and middle classes and those living in poverty? Yes, I believe there is. Are those in poverty more likely to have a severe mental illness? Again yes. According to the Mental health Foundation,
“Poverty increases the risk of mental health problems and can be both a casual factor and a consequence of mental ill health. Mental health is shaped by the wide-ranging characteristics (including inequalities) of the social, economic and physical environments in which people live.”
Many people with severe mental illnesses also fall into poverty because of being unable to work. This exacerbates already difficult to manage conditions and leaves the individual extremely vulnerable to self medicating, self harm and suicide.
When many people speak up about mental illness, often it’s from their own experiences. That’s fine, but when it’s highlighting stress and lumping it in as a mental health condition, it devalues the impact of severe mental illness. Bipolar, BPD, PTSD, Schizophrenia to name a few are long term, life altering conditions that need psychiatric intervention and expertise to assess, treat and manage. Stress is damaging, physically and mentally I’m not denying that. I feel though that there needs to be more room for conversations surrounding severe mental illness. Too much noise is made around stress, and mild to moderate mental illness. Already sufferers feel marginalised and isolated in society and need more spaces where their voices can be heard.