How would you define “Mental Illness?”  It’s not an easy question to answer. When the Board of Trustees for the prestigious American Psychiatric Association approved the Fifth Edition of its Diagnostic Manual in late 2012, a five-year effort, it received both accolades and tough criticism from professionals, public interest groups and individuals alike.  The debate over diagnosis and classification of various conditions, illnesses and disorders continues still.

The question is more important than it may seem. Despite increasing awareness and education about mental health issues, and the fact that 1 in 4 people experience behavioral health issues every year, there is still a strong stigma and misunderstanding about mental illness. As a result, too few people who could benefit from counseling and other treatments ever seek assistance. The effects are felt at home and in the workplace. Delays in seeking help result in excessive use of medical services for physical health conditions that are exacerbated by mental health issues. Businesses lose billions of dollars annually in lost productivity to workers that are suffering but never ask for help.

The debate over definitions may never end, but the practical side of mental and behavioral health is more manageable. The common elements of mental and behavioral disorders are rooted in what we’re thinking and how those thoughts affect our emotions and behavior. Putting aside definitions and regardless of the root causes, anyone whose thoughts are negatively affecting their mood, thinking and behavior, and are strong enough to make social integration problematic and unusual, or cause personal suffering (unhappiness), is a candidate for experiencing a “behavioral health issue.”

When seen in this light, “mental illness”certainly includes the usual suspects; depression, phobias, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and the like. But it can also includes some very common and wide-reaching behavioral issues such as grief, problems sleeping, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors.

Let’s look at sleeping disorders as an example. Chances are that at some point in your life you experienced trouble falling or staying asleep. The cause could have been very “normal” such as worry or anxiety over something that’s about to happen or already happened. If your thoughts kept you awake at night, it’s normal to get out of bed tired and not have high levels of energy. You may have been moody and had trouble staying focused on activities like work. Typically, once you had gotten past or “gotten over” whatever it was you were worrying about and stopped thinking about it, you returned to normal sleep.

Even though this is a “normal” event, for a time, you were not operating at your best. Not sleeping wasn’t the real problem, it was the behavioral reaction to the thoughts you were having. And the result affected your mood and performance the next day. This certainly fits the definition of a mental health issue.

In practice, occasional trouble sleeping is not considered a mental disorder because it’s typically of short duration and resolved easily once the situation causing the interfering-thoughts ends. On the other end of the spectrum are severe, chronic sleeping disorders like Somniphobia (a dread/ fear of falling asleep or going to bed), Parasomnias (sleep walking and night-terrors are examples), and Primary Insomnia (Chronic difficulty in falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep).

The line between these extremes can get very broad and gray. How long does occasional trouble sleeping have to go on before it can be called clinical insomnia? The answer again comes back to the affect it is having on your mood, thinking, behavior, happiness and the affect it may be having on those around you.

So it is also with many of the behavioral issues that affect our daily lives –grief after a death versus prolonged sadness and depression; nervousness and worry over a particular situation versus severe anxiety disorder or a phobia. In every case, the spectrum is wide and the line is likely different for each person. The appropriate time to seek help shouldn’t have anything to do with our beliefs, ideas or impressions about “mental health”, but rather, when the consequences of our thoughts and behaviors negatively impact the quality of our lives.

This brings us back to the problem at hand: Our misunderstanding and misconceptions about mental and behavioral health causes many people who need help to never ask for help. Perhaps by changing our perspective we can change the results. Rather than thinking we either do or don’t have a Mental Disorder, we look at it as it often is – thoughts and emotions that are interfering with our relationships, our productivity on the job and our ability to enjoy our lives to the fullest.

The simple fact is that counselors, like those at Capital EAP, are trained to provide helpful tools for changing our thinking. These are tools we often wouldn’t learn on our own. Whether it’s sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, trouble communicating on the job or with loved ones, or anything that is simply distracting our thoughts, thinking differently may help. It isn’t a sign of weakness to not know all the techniques for managing distressing thoughts and emotions.  If we accept that a counselor can teach us new ways to think and behave differently, then solving these problems – call it any name you want –is a simple matter of education.

If your thoughts are affecting your happiness, don’t let your concern over what it’s called stop you from learning ways to fix the problem and move on. Call Capital EAP and chat with a trained counselor.