Mental health is not an absence of psychological distress or conflict. All of us at some stage experience the stress of modern living, loss, grief, sadness and/or conflict but these don’t necessarily disable us or require treatment and so are not necessarily an indication of mental ill health. Good mental health is more to do with the ability to think rationally and logically even during times of transition, stress, trauma, loss in such a way that allows for continued and ongoing functioning and emotional stability.
A person in good mental health:
• is able to use his cognitive and emotional capabilities
• can engage with the world and function in society
• can meet the ordinary demands that everyday life makes of him
• feels capable and competent
• carries out his responsibilities and meets the requirements made of him
• is able to respond to the challenges facing him
• perceives reality as it is and accepts its limitations as well as its possibilities
• is able to handle normal levels of stress
• can establish and maintain satisfying relationships
• is capable of leading an independent life
• is able to “bounce back” and recover from difficult situations
• experiences fulfillment based on his efforts
• feels that daily living is worthwhile in spite of difficulties faced
There is no one “official” definition of mental health. Cultural differences, subjective assessments and varying professional theories all affect how “mental health” is perceived. It is however generally agreed upon by most experts that “mental health” and “mental illness” are not opposites. In other words, the absence of a recognized mental disorder is not necessarily an indicator of mental health.
The line between mental health and mental illness is not always clear. We all have bad days where perhaps we burst into tears, explode with rage, sullenly withdraw or reach too often for a drink. We all experience loss, setback, pain, sadness which at the time feels crushing and overwhelming and which causes us to behave in ways that are perhaps not our normal patterns. But does this mean that we are mentally ill? Usually these bad patches pass and give way to better times where we return to our normal functioning.
Sometimes though, one or two nights of sadness turns into a string of dark and miserable days. That anxious feeling which used to appear every now and again now won’t go away and the urge to numb it by drinking is becoming irresistible. The demands made by everyday life start to feel impossible and leave us feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope ad needing to withdraw. We start to wonder whether something is wrong. Is this normal? Should I get help? Can anyone actually help? When we have a sore throat or an earache we are usually able to evaluate whether something is wrong and whether we should go to a doctor. Feelings and thoughts, however, are invisible, intangible and untouchable. We cannot massage them, bandage them or rest them. They cannot be X-rayed or measured or biopsied. This makes it harder to evaluate whether there is indeed something wrong and whether we should seek help.
Admitting that something is or could be wrong is not an indication of weakness or failure or ‘craziness’. In the same way that the body is vulnerable to the stresses and strains of day-to-day living so too is the mind. What is important is to seek help when you need it and not to hope that things will just get better on their own. The sooner treatment is started, the sooner recovery can begin. But because of the intangible and immeasurable nature of these types of problems people don’t always know whether they should seek professional help or not. Here are some points to consider if you find yourself in this position:
• are your emotional difficulties interfering with your ability to do your work?
• Are your problems interfering with your relationships or other aspects of your personal life
• Have these feelings of anxiety, sadness, loss of control, loss of confidence persisted for much longer than usual
• Are you so unhappy that you want to do something about it
• Have friends, family members or other people close to you commented on changes in your behaviour, attitude or personality
• Have your usual efforts to deal with the situation not helped as they would have done previously
• Are you focusing a lot on your feeling of inadequacy and inability to cope
• Do you feel stuck and helpless to make any positive change
Health society guide to stress
Caring for the mind Hales and Hales 1995