For this first post, I’d like you to take a second to examine how you think about mental health. For most people, mental health is a lot like physical health: something we think about only when something goes wrong. Most of us don’t think about how we feel when we are healthy until we get sick. The day before the flu hits, health is a given – a state of existence in the background of life that we ignore and dismiss. The day after the flu is gone health is cherished. We enjoy feeling good and “back to normal.”
The same is true for mental health, and I’m not taking about individuals with diagnosable disorders. I’m talking about all of us. We take for granted our mental health and tend to pay attention when things aren’t working any longer. In fact, the terms we use to discuss mental health and mental illness are based in a deficit model. Illness implies damage or abnormality. Health implies normalcy. Given that, these ways of talking don’t help. It might be that a new way of talking and thinking about these things might be better for us.
When people get on a “health kick” they go through the normal motions: diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, etc. Sometimes they hire a personal trainer to get them to the next level. They join an exercise class to have others motivate them to improve. Does this sort of thing happen for mental health? When was the last time anyone said “I’m really training my mental skills hard now?” What would it be like to focus on mental health as mental fitness, instead of avoiding or recovering from mental illness? Who would you go to for that group class? Who would be your personal trainer?
Your mental wellbeing is as important and deeply connected to your physical wellbeing. The question is where do you want to be? We take our mental life for granted, and treat it the way we treat our bodies: filling it with poor quality food and giving it poor quality exercise. The habits that we develop that shape our bodies shape our minds. We feel the way we do because we get used to feeling those emotions or thinking those thoughts. It’s easier at times to do this, and it makes sense. Friday brings relief because the weekend brings “freedom” while Sunday night brings dread because the week starts back up again in the morning. Friday, Sunday, the week; they are all just concepts, they don’t actually exist. We just all act as if they do. Sure, if you don’t go to work you will lose your job, but that doesn’t mean that Monday is the bad day and Friday is the good one.
The point is that we ignore our mental health. We take it for granted and often fail to realize just how much we could do to improve our well being. The way we feel is rut, often, and just like working out – stopping often causes us to slide back into old habits. As others have stated, we accept what we are willing to accept. When it comes to physical health, we are as healthy as we force ourselves to be. The same is true for mental health: We have the mental well-being that we settle for. Are you happy with your mental health, or just used to it?
What would it look like to focus on mental health as mental fitness? That will vary based on your fitness goals. Just as training for power-lifting is different than training for swimming which is different than training for a marathon, the end goal (what you want) is what will determine your success. There are, however, some things that will be helpful to everyone to get started. Those will be the focus on the next post.