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
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.
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