Yesterday, the White House had a briefing on mental health and suicide prevention in honor of Suicide Prevention month. Advocates, professionals and organizations often use the words, "mental health," in a way that assumes everyone knows what mental health is. Unfortunately, that's not true. If we're going to decrease stigma and have an honest conversation about mental health, then we need to take a step back and make sure all of us are on the same page.
Here are three things to clear up the confusion.
1. Mental Health is not having a mental illness.
Oftentimes when people hear the words mental health they only think of mental illnesses, celebrity breakdowns or worst-case scenarios. They do not think of healthy images. The word mental has a stigma attached to it that can immediately trigger scenes from horror movies, school shootings and epic celebrity breakdowns like Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes or Lindsey Lohan.
However, mental health is not having a problem. It's how you address all of the challenges in your life. It's how you handle stress, break-ups, rejection, lack of sleep, loss and everything else. We need a clear definition of mental health as a baseline. The World Health Organization defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."
2. Mental health is as important as physical health.
Teaching people solely about mental illnesses isn't the best way to be preventative or proactive in preparing them for their lives. We need to teach mental health the same way we teach physical health. The education needs to start at the youngest age possible and carry through all levels of school.
When people are asked to describe physical health they use words like diet, exercise, muscles, CrossFit, yoga, Pilates, gluten-free, the Bar Method etc., (I live in LA) or any other description that implies taking care of yourself. Again, when people are asked to describe mental health they rarely use words that have a positive connotation.
Your brain is one of the most important parts of your body. You can exercise, develop and strengthen your brain as much as you do your body. There are obvious exercises like memory, crosswords and puzzles. Another thing you can do is to evaluate your coping mechanisms. People strengthen their muscles with exercise and stretching. You can strengthen your mental health by creating effective coping mechanisms.
3. Mental health is for everyone.
I give a lot of presentations about mental health. Not surprisingly, most of the presentations I give are mandatory, because what college student is sitting in his dorm room thinking, "I wish there were more mental health speakers coming to campus. I'm tired of going to parties and having fun."
My favorite person in my audiences is the person who upon learning he is at a mental health presentation rationalizes it by thinking, "I'll listen to this, so I know what to do for other people." Balanced mental health is something all of us should have. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder with anger control problems and psychotic features. Someone else may only experience small levels of stress. In both of these cases our goal should be to have balanced mental health.
So in the immortal words of Oprah. You get mental health. You get mental health. You get mental health...
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.