They sound like pretty dull words.
And it seems we know best what they mean when things go wrong with them. We hear general statements about what mental health ‘should’ (or ‘shouldn’t’) look like for everyone. So it often seems like a kind of one-size-fits-all expression.
But if you dig a little deeper beneath their surface, buried within these two words lie all manner of riches. And there’s meaning to be found here that’s for you alone.
So grab your shovel and come dig with me for a moment.
There are many layers to get through here, but maybe the first thing to notice is how interconnected all these layers are. For though it might be handy to think of mental health as a standalone concept, maybe it’s not quite that simple. You can’t exactly slice that ‘mental’ bit of us away and have it work in isolation. We’re all bio-psycho-social beings, which is just a fancy way of noticing that we get around in a ‘body-mind’, not just a body with a mind.
So maybe a good place to start is to uncover some more of that relationship – how your physicality is woven through your mind. How your body affects your thoughts.
Being a therapist, I’m pretty fond of the idea that talking things through can help – that sitting in a room and remembering or discovering (and practicing) new ways of being can revolutionize your life. But when it comes to mild to moderate depression, it turns out that simple exercise is often at least as effective as one of the most popular psychology techniques – cognitive behaviour therapy (Black Dog Institute 2009). And that’s pretty fabulous.
So getting out and doing 10-20 minutes of a brisk walk or a bit of a swim can not only invigorate your limbs, it can recalibrate your mood. It sends cascades of your very own personal feel-good chemistry rushing through your system. So your mental health is very deeply connected to your physical health, and how you treat your body.
(So how are you treating yours?)
Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find you’re not in this mental health thing alone. For connections to other people in your life really matter. In our western world, where we like to embrace the ‘cult of individualism,’ it can seem like we’re all making our own solitary way through life – or that we’re all personally responsible for our pain and ‘failures’.
But family systems theory broadens that view to take in a much wider context. It sees your living family tree and the network of relationships that either support you or keep you feeling stuck. It helps you discover how you related or ‘attached’ to your family when you were growing up, and so it highlights the kind of attachment style you might still gravitate towards now, as an adult. And, even more broadly, this kind of systems theory also looks at the whole society you live in, the culture/s you’re a part of, and whether their norms include you, or kind of want to push you towards the fringe as part of a minority.
So it seems your mental health doesn’t exist in isolation after all. That context counts. That relationships resound right through you.
And neuroscience would back that up. For it turns out that the brain is less like an isolated creature locked in a lonely skull, and more like “the social organ of the body” (Siegel, in Hanson 2010). Through relationships, it bridges the divide and connects with other brains, each changing the physical structure of the other.
So how you are with people affects who they are. And how they are with you, changes you, too. It seems relationships are literally a part of us.
If we dig a little deeper, still, that includes your relationship with yourself, too. Maybe even the relationship you have with everything around you. And the mindfulness (or mindlessness) you bring to them.
The power of mindfulness is only just being understood in the western world, and many of our models of therapy are changing because of it.
“Mindfulness is the doorway to taking in good experiences and making them a part of yourself” (Hanson 2010). It’s about “…being conscientious and intentional in what we do, being open and creative with possibilities, or being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgements” (Siegel 2010). So it’s about experiencing and accepting what is in this moment in time – not wrestling with what isn’t. It literally puts you in touch with your life. And that seems pretty important…
So when you dig down into it a bit, “mental health” is a lot more than just mental. It’s physical, cultural, social, relational, neurological, existential. (And all of that rolled together sounds almost spiritual…)
Maybe “mental health” is just another way of talking about life.
And about living your truth…