Caring for our mind is as important as caring for our body and the first step is understanding that mental health and wellbeing is important for everyone. Even you!
Let’s get something clear. Mental health is not mental illness. It is not crazy, or insane or psycho or schizo or any other word people use. If you're reading this article, you know that already.
Using the words of Martin Gore, "everything counts in large amounts". The large numbers around mental illness mean that it should count. Right now, one in four people have a diagnosed mental illness. That’s 25% of the population, wherever you are in the world. Fifty percent, that’s every other person, will experience a mental health issue at some time in their life. Approximately 1% of people will have a schizophrenic episode in their lifetime. That may seem small, but that’s one person in every one hundred. More than five million people in the US and nearly one million in the UK have dementia.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness defines mental illness as "a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning". This last part is particularly important. A mental illness may relate to feelings, such as being happy or sad, but it is significant enough to impact our ability to function normally. Many people with a mental illness still function but many may, and often do, find it more difficult than most. You may know people with a mental illness and not even be aware.
Serious mental illnesses include conditions such as bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia. Some people experience more than one serious mental illness.
Mental illness is treatable and manageable and recovery is possible. This may include medication, as well as counselling, more intense treatments, or lifestyle changes.
Mental health can mistakenly be used as a nicer way of saying mental illness. But it’s completely different. Mental health and wellbeing, or mental wellbeing, are about a person’s ability to cope with life. Our level of mental wellbeing determines just how well we cope, whether we just get through or thrive.
Wellbeing is a slightly vaguer concept than illness and can be described in different ways. The World Health Organisation describes it as "the state in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community".
Not everyone necessarily fits all these ideas and not always at the same time. We don’t always contribute to our community as much as we might like. We might be unemployed. But the important aspect is knowing that we have the ability to do so.
Wellbeing is not the same as being happy or being happy all the time. Life happens! And it’s not always happy. Normal, everyday things, can be difficult. A bad day night’s sleep, a bad day at work, being stuck in traffic, household chores, raising a family, interacting with a partner, or myriad other things, can get in the way of sitting back, enjoying life and just being happy. However, a person’s level of mental wellbeing directly impacts how we deal with these, or any other everyday aspect of our lives.
How we cope and respond is determined by our mental wellbeing. Are we angry or accepting? Do we go through the same routine every day or see opportunities to make changes to improve things? Do we get over it or let things build up until they are unbearable? Improving our wellbeing means that we can not only get through life but make the most of it.
Wellbeing is achieved and improved differently by everyone. In the most basic ways, it means maintaining a healthy body and mind. How? This is up to you. It could include any combination of physical activity, continued learning, meditation, mindfulness or yoga practice, counselling, maintaining a balanced lifestyle, connecting with family and friends in a positive way, reducing stimulants, and eating well.
Resilience, or psychological resilience (which makes it sound a lot more official), can be seen as a step-up from mental, or even psychological, wellbeing. Where wellbeing is is concerned with our daily experiences, resilience is how we cope with the significant things — stresses, traumas and adversities — that can happen to anyone at any time, often without warning.
The death of your partner, losing your job, or learning you have a serious illness are all difficult, often traumatic, experiences. A serious significant negative event will have an equally significant negative impact on our mental health. It would be strange if we weren’t impacted by traumatic experiences. However, a person’s level of mental resilience directly affects how we deal with these, or any other, unexpected major event in our lives.
Do we become depressed? Do we have difficulty deciding what to do? De we get angry? Do we eat more or less or drink more and more often? Or do we have gratitude for what we had, and see that there could be a positive future despite a current situation? Our psychological resilience makes the difference to our outlook and our ability to move forward in positive and healthy ways.
Some people are naturally more resilient than others. However, anyone can take steps to improve their psychological resilience. Maintain close relationships with family and friends, maintain a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and physical activity, accepting those things that can’t be changed, looking for positive ways to improve a negative situation, particularly taking a long-term view, developing self awareness and ensure your own needs are met. These are some of the things that improve resilience. Practicing mindfulness (keep reading) can certainly help improve resilience.
These things aren’t necessarily easy. They may take a lot of work and you may need help, which is where counselling can be incredibly beneficial.
Mindfulness is becoming an increasingly discussed aspect of mental health and wellbeing. Through a heightened level of mindfulness, we may able to manage a diagnosed mental illness in a more positive way, we can improve our mental wellbeing and increase resilience.
So what it is? It’s a form of mental state that is achieved (or aimed for) by trying to maintain focus on the here and now, on the present moment. It involves acknowledging a situation or feelings, accepting them — whether good or bad — without judgement and moving forward in a positive way. It does sound a little like Zen Buddhism, that that’s okay because it’s derived from Buddhism.
Mindfulness is similar to meditation. Any activity can be done mindfully but fully focusing on, and experiencing, the moment. By not being distracted by the thousands of other things going on around us, we are better able to embrace a situation, good or bad, as positively and successfully as possible.
What does physical health have to do with the brain? Just about everything.
People with chronic or severe illness tend to also have mental health issues or difficulty mental wellbeing. Which is reasonable. Research has shown a link between diabetes and depression, for instance.
The other side is also true. Those who are more physically well (such as fitness, nutrition, and sleep), tend to have better mental health, or are better able to deal with mental illness.
Total wellbeing is affected by physical and mental wellbeing and they impact each other. Maintain your body, and you will be better able to maintain your mind!
Mental health is universal. It affects all people, of all ages, of all nationalities, of all socioeconomic situations, of both genders and all sexualities. If you have a brain, if you have a mind, mental health affects you.
You can choose to exercise and be as fit as you are able, with or without any pre-existing physical conditions, or you can choose not to. You can choose to be prepared to make the most of any situation, no matter how bad, with or without a diagnosed mental illness, or you can choose not to.
Living well, living life to the best that you can, is as much about your mind and your mental well-being, your mental health, as it is your health, fitness, entertainment, family, work, career. It’s just as important. We all deserve a long and healthy life, and that starts with better mental health. Learn to give your mind the attention it deserves.
By Luke Myers on June 1st 2018 in Better Mental Health Magazine