Mental Health Awareness Week: what is mental health?

What is mental health? This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, but what are we actually being asked to be aware of?

Looking up definitions in dictionaries or on the Web can be helpful, but impersonal in this most personal of topics. I’m going to try to use my own experience of being mentally unhealthy to explain what I think mental health is. Inevitably, I will miss things out and probably kick myself later, and I can’t speak for everyone with a mental health issue. We are each of us unique, our minds are special and unlike anyone else’s, so generalisations can only go so far. Also, some of the things I say below may be controversial. Please know that in no way do I want to belittle mental illnesses. I know from personal experience just how life destroying they are and that you must ask for help if you need it.

What is mental health?

So what is mental health. Well, it’s going to depend on the individual, it’s also going to depend on where that individual is in their life, what they are going through, what they have been through, what they are going to go through.

Our mental health is influenced by three main factors according to most psychologists: the biological, the psychological and the environmental. In some ways, the environemntal is the most important to consider. We are constantly told nowadays that there is an epidemic of mental illness. To some extent, those headlines are the result of greater awareness of the issue itself: there has always been mental illness, we just recognise it more now. But I also believe, and it’s a belief shared with many scientists, sociologists, and psychologists, that our modern way of life, the environment in which we now live, makes us more vulnerable to mental illness than ever before. But that’s another article in itself.

We must think about mental health in the same way as we do physical health

I think the first step in greater understanding of what mental health is is to see it in the same light as physical health. Remember the three causes of mental health: biological, psychological and environmental. Well, remove the psychological cause and you have the very same causes as physical illness. Our physical health is impacted by our genes but also by the way we live. Sadly, some people are born with mental illnesses, just as some people are born with physical health issues. The similarities go further: mental illnesses are often seen as permanent, chronic, life altering infirmities which come to define that individual. In many cases this can be true. Some with personality disorder or OCD or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder may never ‘recover’ from that illness. In the most extreme cases where that individual cannot manage the illness, they may require full time support. I am blessed to work with some amazing people who have severe mental illnesses and disabilities.

But we need to be more aware of the fact that, just as each of us are physically ill at certain times in our life, or walk around with some physical ailment like arthritis or sciatica or irritable bowel syndrome, each of us may develop or live with a mental illness in a similar way. Chronic back pain; social anxiety; asthma; bipolar; ecsma; depression… That person sitting across from you may have any of the above and you would not know.

Anyone can develop a mental illness

Like catching a cold because we were exposed to that pathogen, we may develop depression because of being exposed to a certain life experience, or anxiety, or an eating disorder or OCD or any number of mental health issues. And yet, given the right circumstances, possibly the right medication, we can recover and leave that illness behind just like a cold, although I would argue that the scars caused by a mental illness never fully close and the wound could potentially open again in the future if you are exposed to another illness-causing event or episode.

A cold does not define you as a person. So why should a mental illness. I had anorexia. And yes, it is an all consuming illness and one which lasts far longer than the common cold. But why should it define me as a person any more than a cold or the flu does? Sadly, some people continue to live with the illness and it continues to make their life miserable (and it can be physically dangerous to the point of being fatal), just as people live with physical illnesses which can reduce their quality of life. To an extent, anorexic thoughts will continue in my mind, perhaps forever, but they will no longer influence how I live. And people who meet me now would never know I had ever had a mental illness or was still in recovery from it if I did not tell them.

Once again, please don’t think that I am trying to belittle mental illness. My fight with an eating disorder was the hardest thing I have ever done. The fact that people with eating disorders have one of the highest rates of suicide of any illness testifies to just how life destroying it is. I can confirm that it makes life a living hell and if you or anyone you know is suffering with one, you must seek help. You have an illness, you deserve help. And that’s what I’m trying to get across. I want to normalise mental illness so that it is seen in the same light as physical illnesses, treated with the same urgency and sympathy. Just like some physical illnesses, some mental illnesses like dementia or schizophrenia may incapacitate a person for life. But just like the flu, all of us may experience a mental illness at some point, and hopefully recover to return to a ‘normal’ life. Anyone can be affected.

So if this is the case, we need to remove the stigma around thoughts and feelings and mental health. We should be asking each other how we are, and not just in the physical meaning of the term. And when we feel that our mental health is declining or we may be experiencing a mental illness, we need to seek help in the same way as we would if we developed a physical illness.

How are you?

Right, I realise I haven’t really answered my initial question of what is mental health. I think, mental health is not just how we feel emotionally, but it’s about how we think about ourselves and those around us, how we interact with the world, how we define ourselves. In my mind, the ideal of being mentally healthy would be to feel confident and compassionate towards myself, forgiving of my mistakes, confident to take sensible risks, able to communicate with others without anxiety, having a healthy relationship with others and myself and the physical and emotional world around me (not just humans). That’s what being mentally healthy would be. And it may be different for each one of us. How would you define it?

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