What is mental health?

Mental health? What do we mean by that? Something we take for granted, something that we don’t become aware of until, through a particular incident, or set of circumstances, or ongoing difficulties (lack of family support, loneliness, isolation, money problems, loss of someone close…) we realise that something is wrong, that we don’t feel right. We feel confused, in pain, with thoughts that seem out of control, worry, anxiety, low mood…

If we are fortunate, we are all born with mental and emotional health, we are born with physical health. Most of us? Sadly, some children are born into addiction, or have learning or physical disabilities, etc. But let’s assume, for today, that we are talking about a healthy birth.

Sooner or later, though, life starts to have its impact and our mental, emotional and physical health, being vulnerable to changes and to injury, can change. Our bodies, our minds, and out ‘hearts’ can become unwell.

Statistics suggest that one in four of us will be affected by mental illness during any one year. Perhaps, given that many people don’t speak about or share their difficulties but live with them in quiet pain or desperation, those statistics are conservative and it has occurred to me that maybe the figure is higher. The impact of poor mental health is as real as a physical injury in terms of the pain we feel and the disabling effect on us. The problem is that we don’t wear a sling or a plaster so, to the casual observer at least, it can’t be seen.

These statistics, disturbing as they are, challenge us to recognise the myth that mental health problems are what happens to others, those who are ‘mental’, ‘bonkers’, ‘nutcases’, ‘loonies’, ‘abnormal’, ‘psychos’. The reality is that, given a particular set of circumstances – a close bereavement, unemployment, debt, the end of a relationship, a a traumatic accident – can happen to any one of us at any time. The philosopher Ortega observed that “life is fired at us point blank”, that so often circumstances can conspire to erode our mental well-being through uncertainty, fear, anxiety, grief, trauma… Individual resilience can vary but, given enough pressures, each of us is vulnerable. So it is essential that we challenge these myths so we can understand the real facts about what mental health problems are and how they can affect people, including ourselves. Given that understanding and acceptance, we can support others more effectively and also learn how to support ourselves, learn how to manage stress, anxiety and low mood as well as put strategies in place to reduce the risks of poor mental health.

Next time, we’ll be thinking more closely about the gap between myth and fact. – Malcolm Couldridge

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