Mental health isn’t a topic that most people like to talk about. Simply the mention of the subject brings up stereotypical images of people lying on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office or a padded cell room. While these examples are a bit on the extreme side, they don’t completely encompass the full spectrum of what mental health is and why we should be concerned with taking steps to manage it. The truth is that we are ALL going to go though ups and downs in life. There will be grief, sadness, loss, anger, stress, anxiety, and jealousy. These emotions are going to come whether we want them or not and it is the habits we form in taking care of our metal hygiene that can get us through even the darkest of times.
Mental health is defined as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, handle stress, relate to one another, and make choices. If this sounds like an important subject that is involved in every aspect of life- that’s because it is! We don’t talk about it because its hard, we don’t bring it up because that means we will have to be vulnerable, and we don’t admit we need help because that implies weakness. And that is why we don’t talk about it- we are afraid. Afraid of what others will think, afraid of how we will be judged, or afraid of the hard work that might entail change. But it’s time we gained a bit of courage and took a hard look at this subject.
Mental health includes a variety of factors including: biology, such as our genes and brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma or abuse; and family history of mental health problems. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly one in five Americans suffer from mental illness each year. So how and what can we do to manage our mental health? First- go talk to someone. Depending on the severity of what you are going through, it can be extremely beneficial to seek counseling services or engage in group/peer socialization. These services offer support and aid in working through those everyday struggles at home and in the workplace. It can also be a place where further treatment such as medication is recommended to help you during especially hard periods of mental distress.
Second- Get some exercise. Physical activity can boost mood, enhance our work performance, and improve motivation and feelings of mastery, reducing stress and anxiety. According to Frank Robert in his book, “Luxury Fever,” one study proved just how powerful exercise can be: three groups of depressed patients were assigned to different coping strategies- one group took anti-depressant medication, one group exercised for 45 minutes three times a week and another did a combination of both. After four months, all three groups experienced similar improvements in happiness, but the very fact that exercise proved just as helpful as anti-depressants is amazing and definitely proves that it is something we should be doing on a regular basis.
Third- Focus on the good. Research has shown time and time again that mental illness impacts us all. It doesn’t matter how much money, possessions, or popularity you have. You can have all these things and still have times of sadness and depression. But one thing that you can focus on is what you have right in front of you. In his book, “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” Psychologist Robert Emmons, shows that consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely. Performing a daily gratitude exercise can be extremely helpful in keeping you focused on all the good things happening in and around you.
Lastly, you can’t sprint your way to a marathon. Managing our mental health is a life long process and sometimes we might need to utilize more resources then others. Ignoring the problem and hiding behind things or people won’t solve the issue- it takes courage. As Nelson Mandela said, “ I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Director of Wellness
Walla Walla YMCA