There is a fine line between mental health and mental illness. We can all visualise someone who is mentally healthy and one who is mentally ill but these tend to be extreme examples at either end of a continuum.
Mentally ill but appear mentally healthy
The reality is far more complicated. Some people can appear mentally healthy when in fact they are mentally ill. Good examples of this are narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths. They lack empathy but can be high functioning individuals. People with narcissistic personality disorder, sociopathic (antisocial personality disorder) or psychopathic traits (psychopathy appears to be a complex, multifaceted condition marked by blends of personality traits reflecting differing levels of disinhibition, boldness, and meanness) are often successful. They lack the empathy and sensitivity necessary to maintain close relationships but they can be brilliant in business environment. They have no qualms stepping on other people’s toes to get where they need to be. (Recommended reading: Snakes in suits – Paul Babiak and Robert D.Hare). They can be dangerous individuals in that they have no conscience. They are manipulative and will charm others into getting what they want.
Narcissists, Sociopaths and Psychopaths pervade every part of society. You may be married to one or work with one. They often escape detection, especially in environments where they don’t have to reveal too much of themselves. In fact, it has been said that many top career men who occupy CFO and Director roles are often Narcissists, Sociopaths or Psychopaths. They are workaholics who go through the ‘tick box’ process of finding a wife, having a family and settling down but in reality, they have low emotional intelligence and can be very cut throat in business. The wives of these high achieving, A-type personalities are often left feeling lonely and unloved. Of course, the financial gains can make up for some of that lack!
Mentally healthy people who appear mentally ill
When we have good mental health, we are resilient, can handle life’s challenges and stresses, have meaningful relationships and make sound decisions. Mental health, like physical health, is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood and old age.
Some people are naturally quirky and eccentric, or they are unconventional and this can sometimes be mistaken for mental illness. Just because someone is a misfit or doesn’t fit the standard ‘one size fits all” societal framework, doesn’t mean they aren’t fully functioning individuals. Mentall illness involves brain dysfunction. Mental illness is a health condition involving changes in thinking, emotions and behaviour that restrict a person from functioning correctly.
Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. Even when considering mental illness, there is controversy surrounding certain developmental disorders such as autism. Not every person on the spectrum is considered mentally ill although many would mistakenly assume that autism is a mental illness. It isn’t. Of course, many individuals on the autistic spectrum may suffer from mental health disorders such as anxiety and/or depression.
Mental health and mental illness are not always easy to observe externally. It’s never a good idea to assume that you know how a person functions inwardly. Some appear fine but in reality, they treat people poorly, they may be secret hoarders or conceal something without detection.
A person may be functioning well and may be triggered by something that leads them to suffer from mental illness. For example – post traumatic stress disorder or psychosis which can be triggered by extreme stress.
Mental health and mental illness are both complex areas – never assume on either.