What is the difference between normal human emotion and mental illness?

Feeling lousy is part of the human condition; indeed, it is a part of what makes us human. We all feel sad, upset, angry, fearful and despairing at times. Sometimes, we feel all of these emotions and more in an average day. That’s just normal. The question is, when does normal emotion become an illness?

Imagine a scale from 0 (normal) to 10 (clinical disorder). From week to week, from day to day and even from hour to hour our sense of mental well-being moves up and down this scale. We might begin the day feeling great - at 2 on the scale. Then we have a stressful day at work and we move up to 6. The commute home is worse than normal and we are up to 8. After we get through the front door, close the door and get into our pajamas, we are back to 2 once more.

When we were at 8, we were in a state of poor mental health, but a temporary state. Mental health isn’t black and white - it fluctuates. The population isn’t divided into the mentally healthy and the mentally ill. We all experience ‘mental illness’ for chunks of our lives - it’s a universal experience. The time we spend at the extreme end of the scale can vary between a few minutes or hours, or even months.

What separates normal human emotion from mental illness is how long we spend at the illness end of the scale. With normal emotion, a person’s time at the top of the scale is temporary. With mental illness, a person gets stuck at the 10. The person feels hopeless and helpless. They are convinced that they will feel as they do for the rest of their life and there is absolutely nothing they can do to change things. It’s a truly awful state of mind to be in.

How do mental health professionals diagnose mental illness?

Diagnosing depression, anxiety or any other mental health disorder isn’t as simple as it might seem. Fundamentally, four aspects discriminate an abnormal symptom from normal emotion:

  • • It gets in the way of the person doing what they’d like to do. For example, depression stops someone dating because they feel worthless (a normal reaction might be for a person to feel they are ‘punching above their weight’, but go on the date anyway).
  • • It is severe. For example, a person has a panic attack at work just before an important presentation (a normal reaction might be to feel nervous).
  • • It persists for a long time. For example, a person feels consistently and pervasively upset for longer than two weeks.
  • • The person can’t see an end to the emotional state or any sense of being able to control it. For example, they feel stuck in the feeling, rather than thinking, I feel terrible now but I know I’ll feel better in a few days -1 always do.
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