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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Oil and Vinegar: Brain Illness vs. Emotional Health

For some time now, I've found myself delineating "mental health" from "emotional health" in written documents and conversations about what I do as a therapist. I think this is a distinction that needs to be made in order to better help all of us (anyone from those who live with severe, persistent mental illnesses (SPMIs) and those who can't get along with their spouse anymore) get appropriate treatment.

Maybe you've heard of Patrick Kennedy. He's a member of the Kennedy family and is a tireless advocate for increased attention to and funding of mental health/addiction research and treatment. You can see his agenda of hard work here. Mr. Kennedy sees the gaps in our system of identifying and caring for people with SPMIs and addiction. Thanks to him, those gaps are getting noticed.

I think of SPMIs and other "disorders" as brain illness and/or brain injuries whose symptoms are often manifested in emotional dysregulation and culturally unacceptable behavior. I also think that brain illnesses and disorders can be and should be separated from emotional wellness and relational health for the purpose of treating them both more effectively.

Because we have a one-salad-dressing-fits-all approach to mental health (finally, I'm getting to the point of calling this post "Oil and Vinegar"!), we lump brain illness and emotional/relational wellness into the same category of "mental health". And, when we lump them into the same category, we make assumptions about how they can be conceptualized and treated in similar ways.

I'd like to challenge our assumptions about mental health by splitting that concept into Oil (brain health) and Vinegar (emotional health). Yes, you can mix them together to get something delicious (a nice raspberry vinaigrette comes to mind) or something nasty, and there is often a symbiotic relationship between the brain illness and emotional/relational health. However, by separating them we can see the standalone characteristics of both.

We know that mental illness is stigmatized in this country. We also know that because of that stigma, many SPMIs and other brain illnesses/injuries go undiagnosed and untreated, which is why Patrick Kennedy's advocacy and awareness work is so important. Unfortunately, we also know that because SPMIs/brain illnesses/brain injuries often show up as behavioral or emotional dysregulation, sufferers end up in the criminal justice system or labeled "crazy". That cycle pretty much stinks and is super unhelpful.

What's also unhelpful is that people who are struggling with their kids or are fighting with their partner or who can't stand to go home for the holidays are worried about being stigmatized with a mental illness if they seek help for what are relational or emotional issues.

By separating Oil and Vinegar, we can create space for the Vinaigrettes to talk to someone about their relationships and their emotions and not have the added worry of being labeled "mentally ill".

So, what do you think? Have you thought about seeking help from a therapist when you've had a relationship issue only to change your mind because you're not "mentally ill"? Have you wished for help sorting out family dynamics but known you don't have anxiety or depression? Are your kids driving you nuts, but you're worried about admitting that parenting is tough? If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, a systemic and relational therapist might be a good fit for you.

#mentalhealth #nimh #oil #vinegar #emotion #relationship #kennedy #mentalillness #spmi #mft #familytherapist

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