I wrote this article back in October for The Grapevine November 12-26, 2015 Issue No. 12.23 “Active and Healthy Living” Column:
What is mental health? The term might seem self-explanatory: mental + health = a healthy mind. Maybe you’re thinking that this post could just end here, but I’d like to offer the idea that mental health extends beyond the individual’s mind to include the individual’s physical health, spirituality, community, and environment.
This holistic conceptualization of mental health isn’t my own idea—it’s been around for a long time; however, what IS relatively new, is the notion that mental health is only about the individual, especially the individual’s thoughts, that we can change our mental health merely by thinking differently.
Despite the common idea that our mind and body are separate, I think many of us consciously or unconsciously accept that our mental health is closely connected to our physical health—how else would words such as ‘hangry’ (when hunger leads to an angry mood) have come into existence? New words reflect the changes in common understanding, so it’s quite possible we all agree physical and mental health are intimately connected.
Spirituality is often thought of in terms of believing in something beyond our physical world like God, an afterlife, or karma, but it can also be defined as the meaning we give our lives and the world. Finding a greater meaning or purpose in our lives has been shown to boost our mental health, in fact; a type of therapy was developed by Victor Frankl, a man who was able to derive meaning from his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.
Even if we are fortunate to have a healthy body and to have developed a robust belief system, these two gifts may not survive if we are mired in an unhealthy community. During Frankl’s imprisonment, he was surrounded by other prisoners who shared and validated his experience. Imagine what it is like for someone who is suffering and does not have such a community. As social animals, one of our greatest human needs is to belong, without which, it is very difficult to have good mental health. Just getting out to a public space or spending time with a pet can help us feel connected. It isn’t the number of connections we have that is important, but that we have at least one good connection that is supportive and nurturing.
Sometimes, individual behavioural quirks can prevent a person from establishing good connections with others, and a person might seek counselling to overcome these, but it is not entirely the individual’s responsibility to fit in. The community needs to strive for tolerance and inclusiveness.
The environment is an important part of our community and it needs to be supportive too. Without a safe and clean environment to work and play in, we will soon see our mental health deteriorate.
With all these components of mental health, it’s clear that it takes effort to create and maintain mental health, just as it does to create and maintain physical health, but the benefits to the individual and the community are a big pay off. If you are feeling down or bored, take a look at these different areas of your life to see if you can make an adjustment in one of the areas. Even a small change in one area can make a big difference.