• Counselor Corner

Understanding the Mental Health Continuum

Over the past several years, there has been a general misconception about the definition of mental health. “Mental health” and “mental illness” are increasingly being used interchangeably. Everyone has mental health just like everyone has health. As famously quoted by the World Health Organization, "There is no health without mental health." While related, the terms mental health and mental illness are quite different. Over the course of a lifetime, everyone will struggle at some point with their mental health, however, not everyone will experience a mental illness, which approximately 1 in 6 youth, and is quite debilitating.

Mental health like physical health is not an on/off switch. There are different degrees of mental health. Everyone moves through a continuum ranging from good/great mental health, to mental health problems, to a mental health disorder or illness. According to a recent article that I read in the Huffington Post, “If we can understand the difference between mental health, mental illness, and everything in between, we can begin to reduce the stigma around the language.” Getting the language right is an important step in normalizing conversations and supporting one another.

What is mental health?

Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about our mental well-being: our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us. Mental health can fluctuate every day, depending on many factors in our life (stressors, diet, exercise, and sleep) Good mental health does not mean feeling happy or confident 100% of the time. It’s not about being free from emotional discomfort, but about having the right feeling at the right time, and being able to bear the unpleasant ones, and having the ability to live and cope well despite challenges.

What is a mental health problem?

There are times in life when things might "not feel right for us." We may experience more anxiety, stress, or anger as a result of distressing life circumstances. We may find our self crying more often, becoming more irritable, or withdrawing from normal daily activities. This what we describe as a mental health problem. Just like people will experience physical problems over the course of their lives, most will also experience mental health problems that affect their thinking, behavior, or mood. For those who do experience mental distress, a majority will be able to recover, especially if they seek help early on. Despite their distress and difficulties in coping, are able to perform daily life functions. Mental resilience allows someone to "bounce" back, despite what difficult situation life throws their way. So, it is possible to have a period of poor mental health without having a mental illness. However, for some, a mental health problem is not as easy to overcome, due to reasons that are not in their control.

What is a mental illness?

A mental illness (or mental health disorder) is a condition that affects a person's thinking, feeling, behavior or mood. These conditions deeply impact day-to-day living and may also affect the ability to relate to others. Mental health disorders in children and adolescents are more common than you think. Approximately 1 in 6 youth have a diagnosed mental health disorder.

According to NAMI (National Association for Mental Illness), "A mental health condition isn’t the result of one event. Research suggests multiple, linking causes. Genetics, environment and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful school environment or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too. None of this means that you’re broken or that you, or your family, did something “wrong.” Mental illness is no one’s fault. And for many people, recovery — including meaningful roles in social life, school and work — is possible, especially when you seek treatment and support early on.

Check out the following links for common mental disorders in youth as well as warning signs for when to seek help.

Sources: CDC and National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) and National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI)

If you have any questions and/or concerns about your child's mental health, especially during this challenging time, please do not hesitate to email Leah Molloy, school counselor at


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