Exam season is perceived as dark and full of danger. It is highly likely that you are feeling anxious, and living off energy drinks in the library – or perhaps you are one of the post-docs that survived exams since you have the time to read this! Nevertheless, this article still concerns you: maybe it is someone you know, maybe you are the one who is suffering. Especially during this stressful period, it is important to learn about various types of mental illness, and what you can do to help.

For some mental illnesses, medications may not necessarily benefit the entire population. Additionally, defining what constitutes a disorder, or distinguishing health from illness, can be difficult for psychiatric conditions, since there are no biomarkers such as blood sugar level for diabetes. Therefore, a better diagnostic and screening tool is desperately needed. Luckily, a simple test was recently revealed to be useful in predicting future outcomes.

This simple Self-Rated Mental Health (SRMH) test allows patients to rate their mental condition from ‘Excellent’ to ‘Poor’. In an article recently published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, a research group showed SRMH to be a better predictor of future mental health status. The advantage of SRMH is that the assessment is influenced by both social and cultural factors, as well as unobserved qualities of objective health, such as severity, the persistence of symptoms, and functional limitations (e.g. insomnia). SRMH can also take life events into account, including separations, examinations, and unemployment – aspects undetected using clinical objective measurements.

Some scientists have concerns about the effectiveness of this method, as previous studies found 64% of the individuals reported their mental health as ‘good’, despite being diagnosed for a mental health condition. One potential explanation of such a phenomenon may be that patients are afraid of the judgement they can receive following a mental health diagnosis. Some may feel that poor mental health may be seen as weakness, thus they do not acknowledge the existence of such problems. To ensure these effects are removed, researchers studied patients who were diagnosed with mental illness and followed them for a year. If patients are less likely to seek treatment due to social stigma, researchers should observe an unchanged or deterioration of mental health in these ‘health optimists’.

Surprisingly, the opposite was observed. 30% of the optimists do better than their pessimistic counterpart – with or without treatment – after one year of follow up. These ‘health optimists’ were more likely to be Latino or African America, and less likely to be white or Caucasian. Marital status also affected how people rated themselves – married respondents generally have a better score than divorced patients. Furthermore, people with a higher level of education and better socioeconomic background tend to have a better self-rated score.

While it is unclear why these factors affect SRMH, but one thing is for sure: the usefulness of such a holistic approach to mental health evaluation can improve current mental health care. In future, SRMH can be implemented in the clinic by asking patients how they feel about themselves. This can help to identify individuals who may benefit most from treatment, and enable tailored treatment for them.

To conclude, SRMH is ultimately based on how a person feels. We must understand that a mental illness is a disease of both the mind and the body. Asking one to ‘snap out of it’ is as helpful as asking a person with a fractured leg to sprint. Those with a better SRMH may have a better sense of the meaning of life, or they are better at coping with their symptoms. Whatever the reason may be, support from family and friends is still one of the most important aspects of recovery for mental illness. Even if you are not convinced by the effectiveness of SRMH tests, showing you care about people around you can never be a bad thing!