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What is mental health?

When prompted with the question What is mental health? Hazel Meredith, CEO of

Mental Health Recovery Partners South Island (MHRP), countered, “What is the

opposite of mental illness?” For someone who thinks so much about this topic, I was

surprised by my own lack of clarity in replying. Hazel continued, “The opposite of mental illness is no mental illness."

 

People often think mental health is the absence of mental illness but it isn’t.


 

What is mental health?

If mental health is not the opposite of mental illness, then what is it? In Hazel’s words,

“[mental health] is about doing the kinds of things to maintain a sense of optimism,

purpose, meaning, contentment, and engagement in your life”. Along similar lines, the

World Health Organization (WHO) establishes that “mental health is a state of wellbeing

in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal

stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her

community.” This is perhaps why substance abuse counselor Christopher Rossey

reasons mental health is “a way to become more integrated, and being more integrated

makes you an active rather than a passive agent in your own health.”


Who has mental health?

If you’re like me, you might be wondering, “does this mean that mental health is only

afforded to the lucky amongst us who can check all these boxes and haven’t

experienced any mental illness?” The answer is a refreshing no. Hazel describes “[...]

people struggle with thinking that if you have a mental illness, you can’t possibly have

mental health. But we all have mental health.” Much like everything else in life, mental

health “is a continuum of situations, of how you are feeling, how your brain is

responding to environmental factors,” shares David Butler, Clinical Nurse Educator of

Early Intervention in Psychosis at Island Health Vancouver Island Health Authority

(IHVIHA). Similarly, Olivia Howard, Core Services Manager at MHRP and host of a

podcast about this topic summarizes,


 

Mental health is something that every single person experiences fluctuations in [...], we all have a body […] a mind, therefore, we all have mental health.


 

What influences mental health?

Fluctuations in mental health help us adapt to our ever-changing contexts. According to

Dr. Daniel Boston, a psychiatrist at IHVIHA, all biological, psychological, and social

domains of life can influence mental health and vice-versa. As I watch all the public

health and safety issues the world is currently facing, I am reminded of Hazel’s interview

“And any of us, whether we have a mental illness or not, would struggle if we’re not

having our social determinant needs met”. Throw our biological and psychological

needs in the mix and it’s easy to appreciate why it can be so hard to reach the

ambitious WHO standards of mental health right now.




It's important to emphasize we can seek support along the way. “Being overwhelmed is normal, but people aren’t aware there are mental health resources to treat mental health symptoms such as these. They assume you need a diagnosis before seeking help,” says mental health advocate and Brown University Surgical Neurophysiologist Helen Karimi.


What about mental illness?

Changes in mental health can go haywire and not lead to adaptation at all. This is

where mental illness comes in. The path forward, just like in any other health issue, is

treatment and, hopefully, recovery. But, as the saying goes, prevention is better than

cure. For Dr. Boston, systemically, this means changing healthcare systems to comply

with our advanced understanding of mental health, for example, removing, where

possible, the focus from medical doctors and placing it in counseling services. For all

our interviewees, in turn, this also means increasing awareness about mental health. To

put it another way, “we might know of mental health, but do we understand it?”, asks

Olivia Howard.


What is Mentally Minded?

Mentally Minded is here to tackle this issue. It’s a place where you can ask questions

about mental health and get answers. It’s where you will find scientific, accurate and

accessible information about mental health. We hope the information we share can help

you find solace in your own mental health journey.


Summary

Just like physical health, mental health is a consequence of being human, a dimension

of life built by a complex symphony of biological, psychological, and social factors.

Mental health gives room to adaptation and is not a diagnosis. In the candid words of

Hazel, “mental health impacts everyone and we all have a stake, a role, a responsibility.

It’s a gift that we can share, give, and receive from one another.”


Written by Elisa Gonçalves de Andrade

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