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Understanding when to separate mental wellness and mental illness

Edinburgh blogger, author, podcaster and speaker - Jojo Fraser

I’m huge on wellness and believe we should all have a range of toolkits to help us with our energy, overall health and outlook. I think it’s great to be curious and question why we do certain things. Are we self sabotaging, do we need to break generational patterns, which deep rooted limiting beliefs are we holding? I’m a self confessed personal development junky and have been since as long as I can remember. I love learning about people, myself and the things that help us to be happier and healthier.

In 2015 things changed for me, when someone I deeply love experienced a mental illness.  I took it personally at first, down to a lack of understanding.  I realised how much stigma there was and it became a serious pain point.  I have been a mental health campaigner since, noticing a massive shift in that time. More people are making noise with the intention to break down stigma and we now know that our mental health is just as important as our physical.  I have seen some amazing posts this week, for mental health awareness week in terms of understanding when to separate mental wellness from mental illness.  Did you know that there are over 200 classified forms of mental illness? We all have mental health which we can ‘wellness’ our way out of. Mental illness is different.  Sadly, mental illness isn’t as cool to talk about as wellness.

Mental illness is a tough one.  I get it now like never before, after going through one in early 2020.  It has given me even more empathy and understanding.  I know that mental illness requires professional medical treatment and that things can spiral quickly. Mine was dubbed as a medical emergency and I received excellent care from the word go.  I know many stories are different and I constantly hear of long waiting lists.  I have seen the levels of pressure put on staff and when I was manic I may have been known to tell a couple of the more challenging nurses that they were in the wrong job.  Oh dear.  Of course, who was I to say that having never walked in their shoes?  I want to give that unwell version of me a little slap.  I guess the problem was that there were also some incredible nurses who were made for the job, they stayed calm and didn’t react.  Even when I made it very easy to react.  Which in turn kept me calmer when in a very fragile state.  I know that there is an important place for medication, hospitalisation and therapy. Granted, the hospitalisation part sucks.  I noticed a different type of stigma when I was unwell. Whilst I experienced so much love, empathy and compassion, there is a small % that will put you into a ‘crazy person’ box and right you off. I also experienced how it feels when you are desperate to talk and some are not able to.  You also realise that there are those who only want to be in your life when it is all smiles and happiness.  I’m told the term is ‘champagne Charlie’.

Stigma often comes from a place of fear and a lack of understanding about the behavioural changes that can happen in the throes of a mental illness.  Looking back, the illness I experienced was acute for around 6 weeks and boy was it an eye opener.  It taught me so much.  Episodes of mental illness can be terrifying, exhausting, and frustrating for those impacted and their loved ones.  The absolute key is to educate people.  I am aware that I went through 37 years of life with good levels of mental health prior to this, aside from the odd panic attack and my old pal anxiety.   I don’t take it for granted that many are not so lucky and a lot of the patients I met whilst in hospital have been in and out of care for many years.  Sometimes I worry that my words may seem too positive for those cases.  But I hope that my straight talking helps.

My recovery involved many wellness tools as well as professional psychiatric care. I stayed on medication for 2 years to be safe and came off gradually. This was something I did with the help of a wonderful psychiatrist. Of course, if I felt I needed it for longer or forever, I would have continued to take it. I am also receiving help from the NHS spiritual care team because I believe that the lines between psychology and spirituality can cross.  I asked the professionals so many questions in my recovery and I got a lot of ‘I don’t know, there is still so much we do not understand’.  For a super inquisitive person, you can imagine this was a real tease and has encouraged me to continue to invest the time into research.

Any illness can be a scary thing to go through. Our health is very precious. But an illness shouldn’t define a person. I actually like the word ‘crazy’ and before my illness would see it as a compliment. It has a slightly different meaning to it now. I love being crazy in a carefree, fun free spirited way. I don’t like my mind losing touch with reality and becoming delusional. There is nothing fun about that. In fact, looking back it was terrifying at times.  But that short period in my life was an illness which has nothing to do with who I am.  I also now view the word manic differently.  Often people use it:
‘Today has been manic’.
A full blown manic episode is a totally different story.
To quote the author and broadcaster, Poorna Bell:

Real mental illness, whether it is something we are born with or develops, is still feared.  It is not asked about and the toll it has on people and their loved ones is immense.’  People are not their illness.  My late husband Rob wasn’t just someone with depression.  He was clever, funny, a bird and plant nerd, a punk rocker, a gentle soul.  And he deserved to have the right help.  As everyone who deals with this does.  We cannot just do the thing that seems comfortable.  Not when it comes to mental health or illness.  Things can change, we can learn and evolve.  And for me, illness must be part of the conversation because as hard as it is to hear, I know it’s harder to live through alone.’

Ending with my usual update ‘you got this’ doesn’t feel quite right to follow these words.  So instead, as we approach the end of mental health awareness week, I say let’s keep educating and remember the power of kindness when it comes to things we don’t understand.


Jojo Fraser - motivational speaker and wellness author/podcaster

Jojo Fraser is an award-winning mental health researcher, author, podcaster and keynote speaker, dubbed as ‘the Queen of positivity and a kindness advocate.   She is a Tedx speaker and a regular contributor on BBC radio.  Jojo is known for normalising discussions around our mental and spiritual health, making it accessible and relatable to all.  She has quickly grown a reputation for having a huge impact even on the most sceptical of people.

Connect with her across social @jojofrasermojo

Listen to her Tedx talk about the power of removing our masks.

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