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Mental health and wellness: Not the same, but equally important


Health. Peace of mind. And enough of both to spread the joy around to my loved ones.

It surprises people when I say that these are my three biggest goals I aspire to attain in in the next five years of my life, but the truth is this is what I have wanted these things for a long time. When you consider that I have been living with chronic health problems all my life, the reasoning for why I want these things becomes clearer.

This is why as a law student I appreciate the efforts taken by many law schools and the ABA itself to address the staggering problems mental health problems produces during law school and working as a lawyer. After all, all you have to do is look up the statistics to see that my generation of law students is facing a growing tide of stress mental-health related problems that will leave us more stressed out, facing more mental health problems, and ultimately unhealthier than our predecessors.

That’s why even after what I say next, I still stand by the notion that mental health and wellness are some of the most important initiatives law schools and law students can participate in, because we need to address these issues head on and at least be willing to recognize that we have a problem before we can fully fix all them.

But the other truth is, as we as a society are finally starting to understand that being healthy in both happiness and mind is important for students to succeed in schools, it still bothers me how many “mental health” initiatives in fact focus on wellness as the main or only theme. The real truth is that while mental health and wellness are in fact both important to having a healthy mind overall, the two are totally separate concepts that could stand to be addressed as such.

According to the dictionary, wellness is defined by the dictionary as “the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal,” while mental health is defined as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.’ While these may sound similar and are in fact quite compatible, the truth is that these are not the same concepts and should not be treated as such. The proof of this is in the facts of how we address both issues.

For example, I can tell you as a person who has suffered from severe breathing issues my entire life that my wellness and mental health have been two entirely different issues. Just recently the cause of a majority of my breathing issues was diagnosed as the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis, which affects both my lungs and mental health, as well as the rest of my body. Therefore, when I suffer from bouts of depression, I always wonder if it is because it is a recognized symptom of my sarcoidosis and therefore should be treated medically, or if it is due to an emotional or psychological factor such as stress or a traumatic event happening in my life. The depression I experience, then, could be a result of either my physical wellness or my mental health, and for me at least, these require totally different approaches.

If my physical health is what is leading me to be depressed due to a flare-up of my illness, then it does me little good to go talk to my therapist instead of taking my medicine to fight the onset of more difficult sarcoidosis attacks. On the other hand, if I am suffering from depression due to a mental health concern such as stress from classes, then it does me even less good to just take my autoimmune medicine and not seek advice from my therapist or engage in self-care activities to help heal my mental state.

What I’m saying is that because wellness and mental health are two separate issues, it does little good for schools and the legal field in general to treat them as if they are the same thing. There are some people who suffer from conditions that affect their wellness but not their mental health, and there are others who suffer from mental health issues but are otherwise medically well. Also, as my case exhibits, as well as many, many other law students and lawyers, intersectionality exists, so that these two issues can coexist and need to be addressed together but with different methods and resources entirely.

A smoothie or yoga or even playing with puppies will not make my depression go away on its own, but that does not mean that these methods are useless or shouldn’t be implemented. The key to addressing both of these crucial issues is instead to treat them as two heads of the same hydra, just like from the famous Hercules myth: both mental health and wellness are equally important, but distinct enough that they require different approaches to solving the hard consequences they impose on those who suffer.

Mental health is important, and so is wellness. But they are not the same thing and should not be treated as such. To truly start fixing the issues these two create, we are all going to have to start recognizing that they are different, and that’s okay. There’s enough passion and dedication by many, many people to finding workable solutions, and I’m hopeful that both mental health and wellness can improve in law schools and the legal field. We just have to stop trying to slay the two-headed beast with only one sword and instead come at both from all sides if we truly want to conquer all.

Caitlin Peterson Caitlin Peterson is a 3L at Washington & Lee University. During the 2017-2018 school year, she served as the ABA Law Student Division’s Delegate of Diversity and co-hosted the ABA Law Student Podcast. She remains committed to issues affecting young people such as mental health, juvenile justice, and disability rights.