What is Mental Health? A Guide To Understanding And Supporting Your Mental Health

In the last handful of years, mental health has become a topic that’s discussed seemingly everywhere you look. You can’t spend more than a few minutes on social media or watching television without seeing some sort of reference to how people are doing mentally and emotionally. The importance of mental health has increased even more so during 2020 as COVID-19 and other life stressors are putting a strain on more people than ever before. Many families are now attempting to work from home, become teachers to their children, and for some, are having a difficult time making ends meet. It’s estimated that more than 43 million Americans struggle with mental illness and since 2012, rates of youth depression have risen by roughly 2.5%. While it seems clear that mental illness, depression, and mental health are all connected, what’s the true difference? How can you better understand how to stay mentally healthy and help others in your life who may be struggling with a mental illness? Today we’re going to take an in-depth look at all of these factors and more.

Mental Health 101

Each year, the month of October is dedicated to Mental Health Awareness, so it’s a fitting time to discuss exactly what mental health entails. All too often, people interchange mental health and mental illness, but the two concepts are actually quite different. Your mental health refers to your emotional, social, and psychological well-being. For example, do you have a job you enjoy, are you able to pay your bills on time, and do you have a close-knit group of friends who you can count on? If so, it’s likely that your mental health is thriving. Individuals who are stressed about unemployment, are in an unhappy marriage, or who are going through the emotions associated with the illness of a family member are in a different place. These people are probably struggling with their mental health and could also resonate with feelings of depression or anxiety.

Aside from our environmental circumstances, there are additional factors that contribute to one’s mental health. Some biological factors can play a role, as well as a history of trauma or abuse. Even the choices you make on a day to day basis can greatly influence your mental health, as exercise and a healthy diet go a long way toward supporting a positive mental space. It’s even said that your attitude toward life affects your mental health, as individuals who are optimistic and look for the good in all situations have a much greater likelihood of staying mentally healthy even during difficult times.

Is Mental Illness the Same?

While mental health and mental illness sound like two opposing ideas, there’s a lot more underneath the surface than you’d think. If someone is lacking in good mental health, that doesn’t automatically mean they are mentally ill. For many, a diagnosis of a mental illness is simply an aspect of their life to keep in mind and may not indicate a permanent lack of mental health. So what exactly is mental illness if it’s not the other side of the mental health coin? Mental illness refers to a brain-based condition that alters the way a person thinks. There are over 200 classified forms of mental illness, ranging from anxiety that pops up from time to time to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder that significantly affects how a person goes through their day to day life. Mental illness can be triggered by one’s environment although for many people it’s related to a genetic factor or a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Mental Health Building Blocks

All too often, people are told to “cheer up” or “fake it ‘til you make it” when it comes to improving their mental health. Most find that this is far easier said than done, as boosting your mental health and taking care of it regularly is more complex. We know that a person’s mental health is influenced by a number of factors, but by and large, one of the more prominent reasons that a person can struggle in this area is directly related to stress. Think for a moment about the last time that you felt down in the dumps — was it because you were stressed? While we can attribute rough patches in life to sadness or many other negative feelings, studies have found that stress plays a significant role in one’s mental health. Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these scenarios:

  • Your employer cut back your hours due to COVID-19 and now you aren’t able to pay your bills each month. You’ve applied for unemployment and are still waiting for your benefits to begin, but you only have a few weeks left before rent is due.
  • A person’s home is supposed to be a place of rest and relaxation, but you aren’t able to afford an apartment close to where you work. You live on the outskirts of town in an area that’s less expensive but it’s not as safe.
  • Despite moving to a new city a year ago, you still haven’t made many friends and often feel isolated. You miss living close to family and, while you’re able to converse with co-workers during the day, at night and on the weekends you miss having one on one interactions with people you care about.

These examples are just some of the many reasons you might feel stress in your life which will ultimately play a role in your mental health. Unfortunately, if you experience chronic stress for a long period of time, it can actually change the makeup of your brain and lead to a host of health issues. Individuals who are chronically stressed may have a higher likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity, or cardiovascular issues. If your mental health is already suffering, learning that you now have one of these conditions will only lead to more stress and further continues the stress/poor mental health cycle.

Warning Signs

It’s clear that a person’s mental health is incredibly important, not only from a health perspective but also in the attempt to live a fulfilling and happy life, but how can you tell if your mental health is in jeopardy? Mental illnesses often have very clear sets of symptoms that clue someone into needing professional help, but sometimes mental health concerns aren’t as clear cut. If you or someone you know experiences a rather sudden change in personality or demonstrates unusual levels of anger, sadness, or anxiety, it could be a sign that something is amiss. Closing yourself off socially and withdrawing from the world, especially when coupled with a feeling of hopelessness or overwhelm, can also be an indicator that your mental health is unstable. Those who engage in risky behaviors or who stop taking care of themselves on a very basic level, like not eating or showering for days on end, could also be struggling with their mental health. When several of these warning signs are seen together, it indicates a real need for professional intervention. Taking care of your mental health is never something to be ashamed of because any step you take toward your own betterment is a step in the right direction. It’s particularly important during this global pandemic to take care of your mental health by exercising, eating nutritious foods, and even talking with a therapist if needed.

What Can You Do?

Staying aware of your mental health is important, but what if you find yourself exhibiting some of the warning signs listed above, or one of your close friends or family members gives you an indication that something is wrong? Often times, scheduling an appointment with your primary care doctor or a therapist is the first step toward improving your own mental wellbeing. Make a list of questions to bring with you to the appointment and remember, these individuals will provide you a safe space to share whatever is going on. When you suspect that a friend or family member is in need of support, it’s crucial that you allow them to open up to you as much or as little as they’d like in a non-judgemental space. Rather than trying to tell them what’s wrong or assuming how they feel, ask open-ended questions and listen to what they have to say. Don’t be afraid to suggest that they speak with a professional and always remember your own personal limits. It’s entirely possible to be a part of this person’s support system but it’s not your role to solve their problems or act as a therapist.

You're Not Alone

For many, 2020 has felt very isolating in a lot of ways and has been one of the more difficult years that a lot of us can remember. No matter what you’re going through, keep in mind that you are not alone. Being aware of your mental health is important and there’s no shame in recognizing that you might need additional support. Whether your mental health concerns are temporary due to COVID-19 or you’ve been feeling low for a while, it’s our wish that our readers get the help they need and stay safe during the pandemic.


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