Mental Health is has been given a lot of exposure recently, its being covered in the media and even government policy. But do we really understand mental health?
What is Mental Health?
We all have mental health, it’s just the other side of physical health, sometimes we refer to it as emotional health or well being. We all suffer from poor mental health at some point in our life, it is natural, just like breaking a leg or getting the flu; we are all susceptible to injury and illness, physically and mentally.
Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden. It is easier to say “my tooth is aching” than to say “my heart is broken” - C.S Lewis
There is no single cause for mental illness, it can be biological, psychological, environmental or a combination.
What does Poor Mental Health Feel and Look like?
This is where the lines blur, how do we identify poor mental health, when do we attach the label “illness?”
Some may show signs of declining mental health through a change in personality, how they process thoughts and interact with others. Often there is no outward signs, it is easily concealed, for others it is very outwardly expressed.
Poor mental health affects how we feel about ourselves and people around us. It influences our ability to make and keep friends and relationships. It hinders our ability to learn from others and to develop psychologically and emotionally.
Of course much of this is subjective, how do we really know if someone is “mentally ill” or if it is just their character? It is hard if not impossible to accurately diagnose mental illness. Our views of mental health have changed so much over history; there were times when a woman was “insane” for disobeying her husband. Therefore mental illness is still very much undiscovered and likely to change as we evolve.
How we treat Mental Illness
Until recently the most common way to “treat” mental illness was by the use of drugs. One could argue that we are only treating the symptoms not the illness. We also have many other therapies such as counselling, psychotherapy and recovery programs. All beneficial in their own way, for some it works for others it doesn’t.
I am not my diagnosis
What I’ve always struggled with is the question; do we become our label? Growing up I challenged the labels people tried to impose on me, what purpose do labels have in establishing who we think we are? I’ve watched children I taught as a secondary school teacher be labelled “bright”, “slow”, “academically challenged” and the list goes on. I wonder how many of these children grew into their labels?
In my experience, I have found people who suffer from mental illness as very emotional, deep thinkers. Some are creative, expressive and think out of the norm. Look at how Einstein was described:
Einstein's primary-school teachers reported that the child had a powerful and lingering distaste of authority. Coupled with his late-developing speech, some medical professionals have suggested this behavior as symptomatic of either autism or Asperger's Syndrome.
I am sure there is plenty of cases similar to Einstein. In society we see anything that is different as being a problem, even to the point that recently “disobedience” is being labelled as a mental health problem. That has got to be worrying?
Mindfulness and Mental Health
Finally we have come to a place of understanding that mental health needs a different approach. I won’t for a second suggest that Mindfulness is the cure for all mental health issues, nor will I say it’s appropriate for everyone. As we have already established, mental health is too personal too have a one fit solution for all.
These are the reasons that I think Mindfulness can help improve Mental Health:
“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden” - C.S. Lewis
In Mindfulness we are taught to turn towards our pain. This can be extremely difficult for some and maybe even the first time that they are asked to do this. It is essential that when learning to practice Mindfulness you have an experienced practitioner to guide you, so that you can be supported to know when to turn towards and when to move to a different place when it gets too much. Mindfulness is a process of self regulation, at first we need someone to help us learn how.
Why turn towards our pain? - simply because when we pay attention to it, give it room to do what it needs to do, it can also begin to dissolve. This doesn’t mean it goes away, it just becomes less of an issue. We learn to be with it in a different way.
You can’t tell just by looking at someone what they are dealing with inside - Danielle Rupp
Mental Health is such a personal experience that the only real way to improve it is to work on ourselves. This can be really difficult for someone in the grips of a mental health problem and I guess this is where the use of drugs may help, temporarily in any case. Mindfulness is about self-discovery, self-acceptance and strengthening inner resilience. Through our Mindfulness practice we learn to accept that life isn’t going to always go our way, we learn to accept our failings and befriend what we see as our weaknesses.
In short, Mindfulness is coming to terms with the fact that we are only human
The practice of Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention, to see for ourselves what we are doing and why. With this increased awareness we start to take steps to change our behaviours, we can see and therefore we can do something about it.
The deepest pain I ever felt was denying my own feelings to make everyone else comfortable
What would happen if you suddenly accepted yourself just as you are? What if you could start to be kind to yourself? - this is what we learn through the practice of Mindfulness.
You cannot recover from anxiety by just staying calm
Some people are under the impression that Mindfulness is about learning to stay calm and relaxing. I’d argue that this is the biggest misconception. To learn to relax is a temporary feeling, useful at times but not life changing. It may help to stop the anxiety taking over but it won’t stop the anxiety.
Mindfulness is a practice that can greatly enhance how we live our life. It takes time and commitment to cultivate a moment to moment awareness of what we are doing, when we are doing it. We have to learn and apply Mindfulness practices, not for a day or a week but for the rest of our life. And in a society that is used to quick fixes, this doesn’t always sound ideal.
However if we really are serious about mental health, if we really want to learn how to live in a world that is constantly changing, to take better care of ourselves and be content, then perhaps it’s time to make a bigger commitment to ourselves?