What Is Mental Health?
What is ‘mental health’? What is ‘mentally healthy’? May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time for this conversation, and I wanted to join in. Mental health and being ‘mentally healthy’ are not the same thing. When I talk about ‘mental health’ I always say that mental health is everyone’s health. We all have mental health. Some of us have a mental illness. Mental illness is part of the continuum of the mental health. The series of mental health events in life may be: happy, sad, stages of grief, anger, etc. This year, 43.8 million people will find that the series of events in their mental health will include some kind of mental illness.
Here is a video to accompany this blog:
“What Is Mentally Healthy and What Is A Mental Health Advocate?”
What Is Mentally Healthy?
When we have a mental illness, we can get caught in the trap of seeking the elusive perfect ‘mentally healthy’ state. We have found ourselves down this rabbit hole of trying to reach a goal that is, in all likelihood, totally unattainable. Just like everything else in our society, we have put the concept of perfect mental health on a pedestal that is so high that our fight to get to that place is probably doing more damage than good.
In fact, the state of perfect mental health probably does not exist, pedestal or not.
The Condescending Con of Mental Health
Let me state for the record, my medications have saved my life. Now, let me tell you this: medications intended to treat mental health issues do not work the way that most people believe they work. I have seen commercials for antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers, and I see how miserable the characters are before the bottle that says ‘Take Me.’ They look awful. They cannot walk their dogs or go to that yoga class. Then, suddenly, as though they turn from a stick figure to a human, here comes ‘Suzy On The Go.’ Out in the forest taking photos, downward dogging it with the best of them.
First of all, it doesn’t work like that. You don’t go to bed and wake up “better” and if you get the right med on your first try, WOW – JUST WOW. Anyway, back to the happiest person in the world, is that what you want? That is the con. You are being held to some imaginary standard and expecting perfection. This is racing toward impossible, and it is exhausting. The line is always moving.
These ads also send the wrong message to the people around us. “So, why don’t you just…” because the commercial said so. It is so condescending.
My Mental Health
The longest relationship I have maintained is my relationship with Bipolar Disorder. For 30 years I have practiced the art weaving my illness into the tapestry of my mental health. I help other patients and educate the public. I have a foundation, I walk my dogs around the block, and on some days I go to the beach and walk a little bit.
I have tried the left side of the mushroom, and the right side of the mushroom. I have had the bottle that says ‘drink me’ and the cake that says ‘eat me’ and, finally, I feel better than I have felt in two times forever. I feel the way I feel because I have reached the goal I set for myself. I set my goals each morning when I wake up. They start with, “get in the shower”.
I feel good in my own skin, most days. My expectations are my own and I am good with that.
Part of ending stigma is making the public understand that it is not that easy. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be dead were it not for my meds, but it is not as easy as, “just take this and you will be like you used to be.” I don’t want to hear someone say, “I saw on TV that you could just…”
So, when you write a book or an article about what you say is “mentally healthy”, I say, “Come on, man, what are you doing to us out here?”
When I work with patients, I find that often they don’t know what they want when it comes to their mental health. They just want to feel better. We talk about one mental health goal at a time. Sometimes the first goal is, ‘tell my spouse’. Sometimes it is, ‘go to the hospital’. For others, ‘get the hell out of the hospital’.
For those of us striving to be ‘mentally healthy’, setting goals for the future is not about going out to hike through the redwoods or go bungee jumping.
We need to talk about mental health, not just in May but all of the time. If 1 in 5 people have a mental illness then you know someone who is mentally ill. So, why is there still the stigma? Why are we stigmatizing our friends and loved ones?
We Are Advocates
When we call ourselves advocates we have decided to help spread awareness, to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, and help patients feel good about themselves, whatever good means to them. In order to advocate for a patient who needs us, we may have to help them talk to their family, find a good therapist, or even fight for their rights.
We are leaders. We are educators. We have opened our arms to the battered and scared in our community who need to know that they are the picture postcard of mental health, even if they are not feeling very mentally healthy today.
We are patients. We have experienced pain. We are in pain. We have good days, and we have bad months. We matter just as much as those we stand up for. We must take the time to nurture our own mental health, to treat our mental illness, to advocate for ourselves, to ask for help.
We are Chronically Awesome