Understanding mental health.

There are a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to the term “mental health”. When we hear and see this term, many in society start to associate it with “suffering” (which is not a good term to use around mental health anyway) or with illness. With a term that we use every day, we need to develop an understanding around what it actually means.

Why is developing this understanding so important? 

Just like with our physical health, there are times we will have mental ill-health (which is a term that encompasses both mental illness – a diagnosed disorder AND mental health problems – those that may not meet the criteria for an official diagnosis). This is the aspect of mental health that as a society, we tend to associate with whenever we discuss this topic.

This is also not something that is isolated to one section of the world.

Globally, it is estimated that just over 1 in 10 people live with a mental illness. 

(Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “Mental Health”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health’ [Online Resource])

If you’re interested to see the data around the global prevalence of mental health head to this webpage: https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health

The more that we, as individuals, develop our understanding around the concept of what mental health actually is, the more we are able to support ourselves and others in enhancing it. On top of this, we can educate others and start to remove the stigma that hovers around mental health problems and mental illnesses. 

So let’s get to it! What actually is mental health?

According to the World Health Organisation, mental health is: 

“a state of well-being in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.”

As with many definitions of health this one also looks at the positives around our mental health, not what is going wrong. It is about the way we think, feel and develop relationships – not just about developing an illness. Just because an individual doesn’t have a mental-illness, does not mean they are doing “well” mentally. On the flip side, you could also have a diagnosed mental illness and be functioning well in many aspects of your life.

When we look at our mental health, we can use a continuum like the one below.

The further into the green zone (our positive and healthy functioning zone), the “healthier” we are, and the longer we stay in the red zone, we increase our risk of developing a mental illness.

We are, however, constantly moving along the continuum. Our mental health is ever changing (dynamic), as well as dependent on what is happening in our lives at a particular point in time (relative). We are never going to be able to stay in the green zone all of the time, that in itself would be draining (and quite unrealistic). Also, being in the green zone, doesn’t mean that we are always happy and positive, it means that we are able to be functioning and dealing with aspects in an appropriate and healthy way. There are many factors that impact how we are coping throughout our days/weeks/years and influence where we sit on the continuum. These factors that can include; an argument with a friend or family member, the loss of a job, getting sick, and grief.

What we need to be able to do when something impacts our mental health, is move ourselves back towards the green zone, to have that positive and healthy functioning aspect return. Individuals who are more resilient, and have a higher self-esteem and self-worth find it easier to get back into the green. They are more readily able to “bounce back” and self manage coping strategies to help deal with the issues that life can throw at us. 

But all is not lost. There are many different strategies that can help develop our resiliency and build upon our self-esteem. Finding those strategies that best suit us as an individual is one step towards enhancing our own mental health.

In future blog posts, we will look at many different strategies and practices that can be put into place to not only support our mental health, but enhance our growth in this area.

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