Mental Health vs Mental Illness

The tragedy and actions of Elliot Rodgers is old news and thus all the more reason for this blog. Repeatedly in cases of single shooter mass murders we hear that mental illness is the culprit. Any given incident raises and outcry for better mental health screenings and treatments. I have yet to see or hear of any significant effort being made in response to the outcry. Everyone from survivors, to police, to medical, psychiatric and social behavior professionals bemoans the inadequacy of current treatment options. No one, at least no one I’ve heard of, suggests that mental fitness, like physical fitness, is a thing that must be taught and practiced. I am one of the more than 14 million Americans suffering from a depressive disorder (NIMH) ).


Perceiving a serious lack, I went look for recommendations on how to be mentally healthy. I started with the National Institute for Mental Health. Here’s their mission statement. “The mission of NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure. For the Institute to continue fulfilling this vital public health mission, it must foster innovative thinking and ensure that a full array of novel scientific perspectives are used to further discovery in the evolving science of brain, behavior, and experience. In this way, breakthroughs in science can become breakthroughs for all people with mental illnesses” (NIMH). Notice, this statement is focused on mental illness, not mental health. This focus, from one of the most respected and important organizations researching the human mental state, is a complete surprise to me and underscores the need for not just innovative thinking but fresh attitudes throughout the mental health professional community and the populace in general.

I did eventually find the following suggested methods for fostering individual mental health at the Better Health Channel blog.

Enjoying mental health means having a sense of well being, being able to function during everyday life and feeling confident to rise to a challenge when the opportunity arises. Just like your physical health, there are actions you can take to increase your mental health. Boost your well being and stay mentally healthy by following a few simple steps.
  1. Connect with others. Develop and maintain strong relationships with people around you who will support and enrich your life. The quality of our personal relationships has a great effect on our well being. Putting time and effort into building strong relationships can bring great rewards.
  2. Take time to enjoy. Set aside time for activities, hobbies and projects you enjoy. Let yourself be spontaneous and creative when the urge takes you. Do a crossword; take a walk in your local park; read a book; sew a quilt; draw pictures with your kids; play with your pets – whatever takes your fancy.
  3. Participate and share interests. Join a club or group of people who share your interests. Being part of a group of people with a common interest provides a sense of belonging and is good for your mental health. Join a sports club; a band; an evening walking group; a dance class; a theater or choir group; a book or car club.
  4. Contribute to your community. Volunteer your time for a cause or issue that you care about. Help out a neighbour, work in a community garden or do something nice for a friend. There are many great ways to contribute that can help you feel good about yourself and your place in the world. An effort to improve the lives of others is sure to improve your life too.
  5. Take care of yourself. Be active and eat well – these help maintain a healthy body. Physical and mental health are closely linked; it’s easier to feel good about life if your body feels good. You don’t have to go to the gym to exercise – gardening, vacuuming, dancing and bush walking all count. Combine physical activity with a balanced diet to nourish your body and mind and keep you feeling good, inside and out.
  6. Challenge yourself. Learn a new skill or take on a challenge to meet a goal. You could take on something different at work; commit to a fitness goal or learn to cook a new recipe. Learning improves your mental fitness, while striving to meet your own goals builds skills and confidence and gives you a sense of progress and achievement.
  7. Deal with stress. Be aware of what triggers your stress and how you react. You may be able to avoid some of the triggers and learn to prepare for or manage others. Stress is a part of life and affects people in different ways. It only becomes a problem when it makes you feel uncomfortable or distressed. A balanced lifestyle can help you manage stress better. If you have trouble winding down, you may find that relaxation breathing, yoga or meditation can help.
  8. Rest and refresh. Get plenty of sleep. Go to bed at a regular time each day and practice good habits to get better sleepSleep restores both your mind and body. However, feelings of fatigue can still set in if you feel constantly rushed and overwhelmed when you are awake. Allow yourself some unfocused time each day to refresh; for example, let your mind wander, daydream or simply watch the clouds go by for a while. It’s OK to add ‘do nothing’ to your to-do list!
  9. Notice the here and now. Take a moment to notice each of your senses each day. Simply ‘be’ in the moment – feel the sun and wind on your face and notice the air you are breathing. It’s easy to be caught up thinking about the past or planning for the future instead of experiencing the present. Practicing mindfulness, by focusing your attention on being in the moment, is a good way to do this. Making a conscious effort to be aware of your inner and outer world is important for your mental health.
  10. Ask for help. This can be as simple as asking a friend to babysit while you have some time out or speaking to your doctor (GP) about where to find a counselor or community mental health service. The perfect, worry-free life does not exist. Everyone’s life journey has bumpy bits and the people around you can help. If you don’t get the help you need first off, keep asking until you do.

These are all terrific ideas and as vague as they are terrific. I suspect that the vagueness is due to an attempt to allow each individual to tailor his or her mental health regimen to his or her specific needs. Yet I have to wonder if individuals, especially the 14 million plus Americans suffering from depression and other mental disorders know their specific needs well enough to effectively apply these steps. I also have to wonder, if things have changed in the decades since I went to school. Do we teach our children how to be mentally healthy, or do we simply examine them for signs of illness? Do you know how to apply these ten steps in your own life? Are you practicing mental fitness? Do you share your mental health practices, or are you sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the failure of professionals with a decidedly narrow focus to predict disasters? Please leave a comment to let me know what you think, where you stand, what you are doing.


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