How To Decide What Is Normal in Mental Health

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Approximately 26.2 percent of Americans age 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, but how do you decide what’s normal or not normal when it comes to mental health? How do you know if your feelings of sadness or anxiety or occasional panic are signs of mental illness or that your state of mental health is normal?

First of all, the 26.2 percent statistic provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, which translates into 57.7 million people, can be shaved down significantly when you consider that the proportion that suffer from a serious mental illness is only 6 percent—still a substantial number but significantly less than 26.2 percent.

Second, determining whether what you are feeling is considered normal mental health or an indication that you should seek advice from a mental health professional is not always easy. Unfortunately, some people still believe it is a sign of weakness or a stigma to have or admit having a mental illness. This belief prevents them from seeking and getting advice or treatment that could benefit them greatly. Many people also do not know where to turn to get the information they need to make a decision about whether they should seek further help.

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People who try to diagnose themselves and determine if their feelings and behaviors are normal will likely only become more frustrated and confused. It is not easy to distinguish normal mental health from a diagnosable mental illness because there is no one easy test anyone, even mental health professionals, can use to make that determination. Mental health providers gather much of the information they need by talking with the individual who is experiencing some mental health issues.

To help them make a diagnose, mental health providers use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which defines mental disorders as “behavioral or psychological syndromes or patterns that cause distress, disability in functioning, or a significantly increased risk of death, pain or disability. And that syndrome or pattern can’t just be an expected and culturally accepted response to a particular event, such as grieving the death of a loved one.” As you can see, this definition still does not provide a precise idea of what normal mental health is.

So what can you do to help you decide what’s normal? You can begin by turning to various mental health individuals, agencies, organizations, and groups to get information and guidance to determine whether what you (or a loved one) are experiencing is something that requires or would benefit from treatment, be it support groups, counseling, some type of psychotherapy, alternative therapies (e.g., biofeedback, guided visualization, meditation), medication, or a combination of these and other approaches.

The best place to begin is by consulting your family physician or another physician you trust. If you know any counselors, therapists, or other mental health professionals, including religious or spiritual counselors, you can contact them for a consultation. You might also contact any one or more of the following organizations. This is only a representative list; there are other organizations that focus on mental health issues that can provide professional information and guidance.

American Mental Health Counselors Association
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Findcounseling.com
Mental Health America
Mental Health Organizations by state (provided by the CDC )
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Institute of Mental Health
Open directory of more than 90 mental health organizations

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