Mental health is on par with physical health in our total well being. Without a clean bill of mental health, our physical bodies begin to suffer. Feeling down and unwell aren’t mutually exclusive; research shows each reinforces the other.
Unfortunately, mental health comes with a stigma attached to it in part because despite advancements in understanding, it’s still poorly understood, especially by the public at large.
But here’s the most important thing everyone needs to know about mental health. Everyone has it. Every single person alive has mental health because it’s more than a lack of illness. Its universal existence is in part why it’s so important to care for it.
Are you ready to learn more about your mental health and take charge of your life? Keep reading.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health is often likened to physical health; either there’s something wrong, or there isn’t. However, the first point towards understanding health, wellness, and ultimately mental health is understanding that this doesn’t describe mental health accurately at all.
To begin, let’s consider the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health. It is:
“a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
But even this definition is problematic because it focuses only on positive emotions when the truth is that you can and will experience negative emotions but that doesn’t have to change your mental health. Indeed, the WHO’s definition and other working definitions are influenced by the modern culture – the culture defining it. We prioritize the positive and thus engrain it into how we see the world.
What is needed is a good, common sense definition of mental health – not an idealized one. Why?
Because you can have good mental health and still be sad, angry, unhappy, stressed, and desperate. These feelings are part of living life as a human.
While some still identify the components of mental health as being solely related to positive feelings of well being (emotional, psychological, and social), it is increasingly recognized as a complex network of feelings that blend positive and negative. Having this understanding is key to unlocking your own mental health and finding the balance in overall wellbeing.
The Difference Between Mental Health and Mental Illness
The second major issue in the way we see mental health is in society’s tendency to see it merely as an absence of illness.
There are grounds for this.
When we talk about our physical health, we often refer to whether we are injured or sick vs whether we’re feeling ‘healthy’. But the differences between mental health and mental illness don’t work like this. Although both terms are often used interchangeably, there are structural differences between the two.
Let’s begin with mental illness. The Diagnostic and Statistical manualManual of Mental Disorders, which is used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness, defines the term as
“a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.”
An illness then has a biological, psychological, or developmental basis. It’s not the result of a bad day or a difficult childhood. In some cases, there’s an identifiable marker involved that can be used to diagnosis the syndrome.
An illness then has a biological, psychological, or developmental basis. It’s not the result of a bad day, a difficult childhood, or prolonged periods of unhappiness. In some cases, there’s an identifiable marker involved that can be used to diagnosis the syndrome. Researchers are continually working to find those markers in other illnesses.
Indeed, Mental health is very different. It refers to our wellbeing: how we feel and think and whether we’re met with positive or negative thoughts and feelings. It refers to how we manage stress, overcome obstacles, work with others, manage our relationships, and generally deal with the world.
One definition of mental health says that it is “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
The main difference here is that everyone – yes, everyone – has mental health and must care for their mental health to maintain their overall self. Mental illness isn’t found in everyone.
Changing the conversation on mental health and mental wellness is critical because it leads people to remain unaware of their own mental health. ln fact, mental health is overlooked and often ignored completely. Stress, anxiety, and sadness are considered a part of daily life, and while they are, there are steps to maintaining your health to stop these things from taking over your life.
What Is a Mental Disorder?
If mental health refers to wellbeing and mental illness is a diagnosable illness with a cause, then what are mental disorders?
Often, the term disease and disorder are used interchangeably, but there is some argument among the psychiatry community. Biological psychiatrists suggest that mental disorders are biological diseases while others suggest there are other factors at play.
Ultimately, the battle between mental illness vs disorder is one that will likely continue to be fought by clinicians, researchers, and organizations for many years.
The most important thing to remember is that mental disorders and illnesses both benefit from treatment regardless of their origin or how they affect a person’s function.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Deal with Mental Health Problems?
One of the most alienating parts of dealing with mental health is the feeling of isolation: you’re the only one struggling with your mental health.
It’s true. While more people are suffering than you may realize, not everyone struggles with mental health even in the face of difficult life changes and problems.
It’s true. While nearly one in five people in the United States experience some form of mental illness, not everyone struggles with mental health even in the face of difficult life changes and problems.
Why is this the case? Some believe its because people with good mental health worked to develop specific characteristics that help them deal with life as it comes.
Characteristics of Mentally Healthy People
What are the characteristics of mentally healthy people? Hint: it’s not happiness, positivity, and a lack of stress. Instead, there are skills that everyone can learn along the way to help manage our mental health whatever we’ve been through.
Here are three things you’ll find in people who are working towards good mental health:
Balance in life encourages and reinforces mental health.
One of the most important ways balance plays out in mental health is in our social lives. Balancing time with others with periods of isolation to recharge and reflect is important for mental health. Other balances mean focusing on work and leisure, self-care and caring for others, and even balancing time spent in climate controlled indoor environments and being outdoors.
Resilience is recognized by research as one of the biggest predictors in mentally healthy people. The term refers to a person’s ability to deal with adversity and reach a baseline of health even when the worst happens.
There are an infinite number of examples of resiliency in history. It allowed President Theodor Roosevelt to grieve the death of his wife and channel his energy into conservation and eventually becoming the President of the United States. Resiliency drove Dr Martin Luther King to continue pushing for the rights he knew all people deserved despite all the forces that worked against him.
You’ll find resiliency in the greatest leaders of our time, but more importantly, you’ll also find it in yourself. It’s the difference between continuing to pursue a career in something your passionate about despite being told time and time again you can’t. For some, it’s as simple as getting out of bed every day when your world has been shattered.
Self-actualization sounds like a plot device in a Woody Allen film, but it’s an important part of mental health.
Rather than seeing self-actualization as a state, it’s better to see it as a path or process. It begins with recognizing your strengths and gifts and becoming secure in those abilities. From here, you start to understand your potential in using these strengths both for yourself and in the wider world. Ultimately, the process helps you find meaning in your feelings and behaviors while also helping build resilience and self-esteem.
How Is Your Mental Health Awareness?
Mental health awareness is the key to unlocking your mental health and achieving an overall sense of wellbeing. Wherever you are in the process, it’s important to remember that good mental health doesn’t mean feeling happy or satisfied: it also includes emotions like sadness and anger. Rather than trying to eliminate those feelings, it’s time to acknowledge them and work with them to enjoy the fullness of the human experience wherever you are.
Are you ready to take control of your mental health? Read our wellness resources here.
Feature image via iStock