Defining Mental Health

P1080039We hear and read a lot these days about mental health.  We all want it right?  Usually though when the topic arises it seems to be in connection with examples of mental illness.  There might be an instance somewhere of someone  who is apparently mentally troubled picking up a weapon and harming or killing others. Then there is a public outcry that we need more “mental health”.

In practice, whenever the cry goes out for more “mental health” usually what is being referred to is increased availability of treatment for mental illness.  However, the treatment of mental illness and mental health are not one and the same thing.  I think there is a knee-jerk assumption that mental health is the de facto goal of the treatment of mental illness…or is it?  To know what is taking place that affects our mental health don’t we first have to define what it is?  Is it the ability to maintain a job, house, spouse, two children and a double car garage?  Or is there more to it than that?

With any organ of the body, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, to name a few, it is indisputable evidence that there is an illness present when that organ is no longer working for the health and survival of the body.  Again, with the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys it is relatively easy to detect and measure when that organ is no longer properly doing it’s job.  It is my perception that when it comes to the mind, mental illness can be a lot harder to detect.  One reason for this is that within many (all?) cultures there are usually some mental constructs (values, behavior patterns) that, while being held in esteem by the culture, on a personal level actually are self-defeating and therefore not survival oriented.  These mental constructs (values, behaviors) logically then represent a type of mental illness.  Don’t they?

To view mental health as something which involves only the brain is an error.  Our mind is pervasive throughout our being.  Anything that affects any aspect of our being affects our mind.  Therefore all cultural/sociological, ecological, environmental, and any internal or external realities we experience are going to have an effect upon our mental health.  That is why simply treating an individual with pharmaceuticals is not “the answer” for the vast majority of mental health issues.  In general, pharmaceuticals may provide relief in an acute situation, however, in the long-run we need to be looking both within and without ourselves to fully understand and effectively respond to mental health issues.

The most profound example of a cultural value that usually works against personal mental health is a system that teaches unquestioning obedience to an external authority.  Essentially such a system is teaching individuals to bypass their innate intelligence, their ability to think and process information, and simply do what someone else expects of them.  A system which supports individual mental health is going to recognize the importance of individuals developing competency and self confidence as thinking beings.  It is important to a healthy culture that it’s citizens are able to think critically and reach sound, viable conclusions.  A healthy/healthful culture will work to develop and maintain structures within the culture that complement and nurture that reality.

This subject could fill a good size book at the least.  The essence of what I want to communicate in this post is that our mental health is reliant upon both our internal and external conditions.   We need to understand ourselves and how we are affected by our environment in order to regulate ourselves and work toward genuine mental health.  If we are allowing other values to take precedence over our well-being…well…what on earth is compelling us to do that?

Also, because we are interdependent we need to value both individual well-being and the well-being of our communities.   Culture is to people as water is to fish (author unknown).

The truly good news is that via a multitude of disciplines;  physiology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, history, and more, we have more access to good information about what we are and what we need than at any other time in human history!  So let’s make healthful living a priority in our lives.

(What is in this post is something of a follow-up to the post “Why This Blog?” published 2/1/2014.)

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