Harmless Personality Trait or Mental Health Condition? Knowing The Difference
“We never had autism in my day!”
“When I was growing up, no one had panic attacks!”
“Depression is nonsense – just go for a walk, and you’ll cheer right up!”
The above are all examples of attitudes that some members of the older population are guilty of saying. Despite the ignorance, this type of rhetoric causes real problems for one reason alone: it’s believable. If you don’t know more about mental health, then it’s easy to see the explosion in diagnosis of mental health conditions as a bad reflection on society.
The reason it’s important to raise this is because these attitudes are pernicious. You may have even heard some of the above; they are generally used to diminish the mental suffering of those diagnosed with conditions. This leads directly to people who have mental health conditions keeping them hidden – and that’s if they even know about them at all.
The Line: Personality Quirk vs.. Mental Illness
There is some truth to the fact that, 200 years ago, someone with what we would now call a mental illness would just be seen as being odd. A good example is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 200 years ago, someone repetitively doing the same actions would like have just been seen as slightly eccentric. Now, we recognize it as one of the most damaging mental health conditions.
Fortunately, despite was some would believe, there has been no explosion of mental health problems. As the example above shows, they have always been there – but we have just got better at recognizing them. History is on the side of medical knowledge too. There are documented cases of what was referred to as “shell shock” after the World Wars – a condition we now know as PTSD.
So if these illnesses are now being diagnosed at a much better rate – why are some people still suffering needlessly?
- Stigma. The stigma against mental health is still powerful, though becoming a little better understood.
- Lack of knowledge. For those of us who do not have, or have never known someone with, a mental health condition – well, we have no idea what to look for.
This brings us to the simple question of… what do you look out for? At what point does an eccentricity, seemingly just part of someone’s character, become more troubling?
Why Diagnosis Is Important
Either for yourself or someone you know, there is no harm in querying the status of your mental health. Assuming that you’re fine – spurred on by the kind of dialogue quoted at the beginning – is a damaging road, because sometimes, people aren’t fine.
If someone has a mental health condition, they require assistance and support. By finding the cause and then coming up with solutions, society can provide some of the things that person needs.
In essence: don’t be afraid to question, especially if it’s about yourself. If you find yourself struggling with dark and unpleasant thoughts, then it might not be a bad mood. Have a habit of repetitive motions and uninvited thoughts; then it might not just be neurotic.
So Where Is The Difference?
There is no checklist for identifying if a personality trait is actually a sign of something deeper. With mental health, the burden of proof is all on the individual – and most specifically, how they feel.
If someone has a habit of liking things clean and can laugh about their Monica Gellar tendencies, then it’s probably personality. Or if someone is prone to melodrama, then maybe they’re just prone to melodrama. Or even if someone experiences a rapid change of mood regularly, that might just be the way they’re wired – there’s nothing wrong, they’re just themselves.
Where these things become a problem is when the person concerned (you or someone else) is distressed by how they think and feel. If they can make jokes, laugh it off – then there’s no cause for concern. If someone feels the need to hide, is embarrassed by or worries constantly about their situation, then further help may be needed. Those personality traits listed above, when damaging, become clinical diagnoses for OCD; Histrionic Personality Disorder or BiPolar Disorder.
What Do You Do If You Are Concerned About How You Think and Feel?
With the above established, the immediate next step is action. There are various tools online to help you find more information, such as a bipolar test or various online forums. You can talk to people who suffer from the illness you suspect you may have and see if your experience matches up.
There may be a sense of embarrassment about seeking out medical help. It’s normal to be concerned that you’re going to be dismissed and told that you’re just strange; it’s something many sufferers cite as a major worry prior to their diagnosis.
If you’re concerned about someone else, the situation is even more difficult to manage. It can be almost impossible to find a way of bringing up these issues without sounding accusatory. In these instances, it’s probably best to drop hints, lay breadcrumbs and encourage them on their own path of discovery. Or you can be brave, grit your teeth and raise the subject.
Talking To A Medical Professional – First Steps
If you get to the point of visiting a doctor – or have someone you care about doing so – then it’s a testing time. But remember this: doctors love healthy people. They love those they can tell are fine, tell them not to worry – it makes their day. So go and discuss it, so you can at least settle the idea in your mind.
But remember: even if one doctor says it’s not a problem, it’s up to you if it is. There are cases of missed diagnosis scattered throughout mental health cases, so if you remain concerned, seek a second opinion. You see, the only thing that defines a personality trait from an illness is how you feel about it. If you find it troubling, then that’s the end of the line – and someone needs to assist you.