Let me start with the bad news. Mental illness is much more prevalent than you might suspect. Epidemiological studies show that approximately 1 out of 5 adults suffers from a mental illness in a given year. Among children the rates are higher. Almost 50% will be diagnosed with a mental disorder by the age of 18. Each year, about 13.4% of all adults seek services for a mental health problem. These numbers strongly suggest that you are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder this year than to catch the flu.
While the rates of mental illness are high, the number of psychiatric diagnoses is on the rise as well. This means that we are threatened by many more mental problems than we used to be 50 years ago. When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental disorders, was first published by the American Psychiatric Association it included a little over 100 psychiatric diagnoses. In 2013, the latest edition included 3 times as many.
The number of prescriptions for psychiatric drugs is also increasing exponentially. In 2010 alone, 1 out of 10 adults took an antidepressant. Primary care physicians now routinely prescribe antidepressants. In some states, even psychologists prescribe drugs. Yet, despite the aggressive attempts to medicate, these mental disorders are like rapidly mutating strains of viruses. They are more resistant than ever. They don’t go away, they linger on, and they prevent people from living full and fulfilling lives.
Next is the ugly news.
These numbers will keep growing. More and more people will convert from mental health to mental illness, without warning and without recovery.
Why is that? Because the protection of your mental health has been assigned to an army of professionals trained by and employed within a system designed to diagnose and treat mental disorders.
Let me repeat that. The shape of your mental health has been delegated to people who deal with mental illness.
The equivalent would be to hire a disaster relief worker to decorate your new home. The most important task for the disaster relief worker is to clear the debris, check the integrity of the infrastructure, restore your electricity and plumbing, and make sure that your home is safe to live in.
If you want your home to feel cozy and to reflect exquisite taste, you don’t hire a distaster relief worker. You hire an interior designer. The job of the interior designer is not to determine if your residence is uninhabitable or unsafe. It is to combine esthetics with function, to bring together harmony and comfort, to combine your personal style with contemporary trends, and to make your home feel like a haven, not like ground zero.
In a similar fashion, mental health professionals are concerned with preventing the worst from happening, not promoting the best. They want to make sure you are safe and sane. That you will not take your life. That you won’t need to be hospitalized. That you can learn to live with your symptoms. That you will take your medication compliantly. That you will follow up with them regularly. That you won’t relapse. Unquestionably, the work of mental health professionals saves lives.
But the truth is that most people do not need this kind of intensive care, just like most homes do not need to be salvaged from demolition. What do we do with the remaining 80% of adults without mental illness? How do we promote their mental health? How do we protect them from becoming part of the grim statistics?
Mental health is an elusive concept. While mental illness is still hard to define, coming up with a definition of mental health is even harder. Sometimes people use it to refer to emotional problems and treatment, and other times to well-being and happiness. But within the mental health system, you will only find problems and treatment. The mental health services only address mental illness. If you are looking for self-improvement, if you want to become better, smarter, kinder, and happier, you are out of luck.
So what’s the good news?
The good news is that there is a vast amount of knowledge about how to live well, discover your passion, develop clarity and vision, become more creative and confident, make good decisions, follow through with your plans, form strong relationships, be reliable and responsible, and ultimately find what makes you happy and do it.
This is the kind of knowledge that when you learn it well, you practice it diligently, and you apply it consistently, will make you a better person, a better partner, a better parent, a better friend, a better professional, a better citizen.
This knowledge is not easy to find. You don’t always learn it at home, you definitely don’t learn it at school, and you are too busy to learn it at work. It exists spread out. Some people learn it through their own breakthroughs, others learn it by finding the right peers or mentors, and others by being dedicated self-learners. If you are an avid life-long learner, a self-starter, or plain lucky, you have learned some of those valuable skills already. And now it’s time to take them to the next level.
If you have not been exposed to that knowledge yet, don’t worry. I am creating a network of professionals whose mission is to bring that knowledge to you and who are dedicated to making your life better.
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