Seeing Signs Amongst Blurred Lines

by Brian Woods

In my last blog I wrote about the difference between mental health and mental illness. The current way that we interchange these terms does have consequences. We are happy to talk about mental health, but conversations on mental illness seem to be more problematic.

This means that people can be discouraged from seeking help because mental illness is still stigmatised. It is better than it used to be, but as a society we still have a long way to go. Too often mental illness is also portrayed in a negative way on television, in films, and in other media. This can cause people to stigmatise, judge, or dismiss those who have a mental illness.

Unfortunately, this means that the warning signs of mental illness can be overlooked. Yet it is vital that they are detected as soon as possible in order that the right help can be obtained.

So what should we be aware of – either in ourselves or others? Of course, mental illness can vary widely. It also affects people in different ways. When I first experienced depression, I had a number of typical symptoms. I felt excessively low in mood. I isolated from other people, lacked appetite, and overused alcohol to try to deal with it.

This is very different to, for example, schizophrenia. Among its symptoms are hallucinations and hearing voices, a disconnection from normal feelings, and difficulty in concentrating. There is a very useful guide to mental health problems and their symptoms on the Mind website at

But what do we do if we are worried about our own mental health or that of someone else? Perhaps the best starting point is to talk to somebody about it.

Discussing our own mental health problems with someone else can seem daunting at first. But it can be easier if you plan ahead. Start by thinking about who it is you want to talk to initially. This might be a friend or family member. Alternatively, it could be a mental health professional such as your doctor.

Not everyone is comfortable with a face-to-face conversation. In that case a phone call, an email, or a letter might be a better option. The Mind online community Side by Side can also offer support.

Think about what it is you want to say, and about how to start the conversation. Be honest and open, as this helps others to understand the issue. After all, their knowledge of mental illness is probably limited. Suggesting a suitable book or website can also help them to understand the problem.

Various approaches can be taken if we are on the other end of the conversation. Give the person time to speak and listen to them attentively. And don’t forget to switch off your mobile phone!

Ask open questions such as those beginning with how, when, or what. This helps people to open up and keeps the conversation flowing. Above all else, avoid cliches such as “pull yourself together“.

Try to relax. If you are at ease, it will help them to be too. Reassure the person that you are there to listen when they need to talk.

Day-to-day activities or issues can often seem overwhelming to someone who is suffering from mental ill-health. If you offer to help with these it can also lift the burden.

Ultimately, we need to recognise the difference between mental health and mental illness. We will all benefit if we do so.

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