Redefining mental health: it's not just about illness

What is Mental Wellness?

When the term "mental health" is used in conversation, most people tend to think of it in terms of diagnoses and disorders. Having mental health means that you do not have a mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. People do not think of mental health as a construct similar to physical health, or a construct that overlaps with physical health and that can actually impact physical health in significant ways.

Therefore, a discussion about mental health is not only about treating mental illness; it's also about a primary care approach similar to the model of physical health that has been encouraged by modern medicine. Taking care of our bodies, stimulating our brain, and managing our emotions are all important aspects of obtaining good mental health.  Perhaps we should call it "mental wellness.”

Many people may hear this and think to themselves "I don't need to worry about mental health. I am not mentally ill. I am doing OK." I would strongly encourage you to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have one or more areas of your life where you feel a sense of "stress" or "pressure"?
  • Do you get eight or more hours of sleep every night without ever waking up in the middle of the night?
  • Do you feel well connected (not lonely) at work and in your community?
  • Do you have friendships that are meaningful, and where you feel there is depth to the relationship?
  • Would you consider yourself a person with a good amount of mental energy, clarity of thought, and consistent productivity during the days?
  • Do you consider yourself a person with a sense of purpose or calling in life? Do you believe that there are certain goals to accomplish? Do you have milestones, achievements, or even upcoming events for which you look forward and enthusiastically?

If you didn't answer yes to at least a couple of those questions, you may want to fine-tune your mental health. While you may not meet diagnostic criteria for a mental illness, research studies have shown that people who can answer yes to some or most of the above questions tend to live longer, physically healthier, more productive, more engaging, and more fulfilling lives.

On the other hand, numerous research studies have also shown that people whose lives lack purpose, or who report consistent feelings of loneliness, are at a higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other stress related disorders. Furthermore, people who are sleep deprived, spend a lot of time worrying or feeling "stressed,” and generally lack energy or enthusiasm about life are at a higher risk for developing the physical illnesses such as cardiovascular conditions, high blood pressure, and strokes.

Five Simple Strategies

What would happen if we took mental health as seriously as we take physical health, taking a primary prevention approach to "mental wellness"?  What if we began thinking intentionally about how to be emotionally stable and psychologically healthy? It's not as complicated or time-consuming as it may seem. Here are five simple strategies that we could start implementing today that could improve the quality of our mental health:

Do not underestimate the power of a good night's sleep.

Lie down 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep. Turn off your TV. Close your book. Turn off your phone or put it somewhere that it's not easy to access. Use a mindfulness exercise if you need help unloading your thoughts. Cognitive behavior strategies are the most effective way to improve sleep habits.

Do something physically active every day.

Take the stairs at work. Take a walk during a lunch break after eating. Go to the gym as often as you can if you need more structured exercise. Exercise, combined with a full night of sleep can dramatically reduce stress and anxiety.

Connect with people.

Make sure that you have at least a few meaningful relationships in your life with friends, significant others, and family. Connecting on social media is not enough. It is a good way to initiate contact. But face time is really important, as is conversation, laughter, and encouragement from a friendly source.

Find a hobby or interest that you enjoy.

Spend some time doing things that you like – gardening, cooking, music, art, reading, athletics, volunteering, etc. The possibilities are endless in today's world of opportunities. But if you were only going to work, coming home, sleeping, and starting all over again then you're missing out on the rest of life and it will ultimately affect your body, mind, and soul. You will notice an increase in your overall energy level and your productivity at work if you are doing leisurely activities that you enjoy.

Volunteer in your community.

Again, there are numerous opportunities available to help others. In doing so, you will build empathy and compassion for others or for a cause. Focusing on those in need also helps us put our own situations into perspective. It is emotionally healthy to spend some time focusing outward, rather than focusing inward and only on our own problems.

The Takeaway?

Following some of these suggestions can improve our "mental wellness" and perhaps give us a new perspective on how our mental health is so intricately intertwined with our physical health and well-being. But sometimes even doing good things to help our souls is not enough, and we need to find another person with professional expertise to discuss our challenges and problem solve. Improving our understanding of the importance of mental health will hopefully eliminate the stigma of seeking professional mental health services.

The truth is, sometimes life throws us curve balls that we cannot manage on our own. We should feel just as comfortable seeking mental health services as we do seeking medical care. Raising awareness of the importance of mental health for everyone is the best way to eliminate stigma and give people permission to achieve "mental wellness.”