Mental Health Series: What is mental health and how to improve it?
Updated: Mar 13
Understanding the difference between mental health and illness, how to address stigma, and productive ways to improve our mental well-being
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As a mental health advocate, I am committed to talking about mental health. I believe it is not just enough to say "mental health is important and everyone should take care of their mental health".
It is important to share one’s mental health journey and keep the conversations going. To that end, I started sharing my life journey openly in my blog welcoming all kinds of feelings and experiences. It is my hope through this blog to normalize sharing challenging, struggling times as well as happy and successful times – basically sharing the life as is, by accepting and embracing it with joys and sorrows.
Today, I realized I may have never talked about openly and directly what mental health really means to me and why am I calling myself a mental health advocate. I think it is very important to explain it, as it puts everything I am doing and hoping to do next into context.
In this post, I will discuss "What is mental health and how to improve it” and my next post will be on "What does it mean to be a mental health advocate and how did I become one?", my personal mental health journey.
Today, January 28th was Bell Let's Talk day in Canada, an important day to create mental health awareness and invite everyone to talk about mental health. Today is a good day to start some new, maybe tough conversations about mental health.
Openly and directly.
In order to be talking about mental health, first, we have to understand what mental health really means.
What is mental health?
Mental health is defined as “the state of your psychological and emotional well-being” by the Government of Canada. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), mental health “is a state of well-being, and we all have it. Just like we each have a state of physical health, we also each have our mental health to look after. It's not just about surviving, it's about thriving. It's enjoying life, having a sense of purpose, and being able to manage life's highs and lows"
What a powerful and deep definition, right? Let's break that definition into three parts and examine it one at a time.
Mental Health is a state of well-being, and we all have it.
It is such a refreshing start, hearing that mental health is a state of well-being and that everyone has it. It is important to acknowledge the difference between mental health and mental illness here, as they can be used interchangeably sometimes, which is wrong and contributes heavily to the stigma of mental illnesses.
Mental health is a neutral concept, as it is a state of well-being that everyone has. However, mental illness is defined as “disturbances in thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that are severe enough to affect day-to-day functioning”. Some examples can be schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. One out of five Canadians experiences mental health problem or illness in a year.
Mental health is strongly connected to one's well-being and wellness. Wellness by definition of The Global Wellness Institute means "the active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health". Basically, it means actively engaging in activities that make you feel good. The keyword here is "actively". Mental health and wellness are concepts that we have to actively be aware of and take care of.
Just like we each have a state of physical health, we also each have our mental health to look after.
The second part of this definition of mental health about the resemblance of mental health with physical health. Understanding this resemblance extremely important.
Mental health may not be as easy to explain as physical health to some people. After all, if you have diabetes, for example, it will manifest with “physical” and measurable symptoms like your blood sugar levels and in other variety of physical manifestations. If you have diabetes, it is absolutely sure that you have a physical health condition. You owe a visit to a doctor, a specialist. No one will discuss whether you have diabetes or not. Basically, physical health can be more of a tangible concept than mental health. Mental health is a more abstract concept. This is where it can get tricky.
It may seem like people are doing fine at the outer surface; however, they might be experiencing depression or anxiety. Depression or anxiety can look very different on different people. People may be highly functional in society and carrying the burden of depression. (high- functioning depression) It can be very confusing how to define a mental health issue or when to ask for help from a mental health professional especially when people are able to function well in society.
It is not easy to argue about the existence of a physical health condition, such a broken arm. Some mental health conditions can also manifest themselves as physical pain but not necessarily all of them. And just because you can’t see or measure something, it doesn’t mean that we can deny its existence.
Mental health problems are very real and can be very challenging to manage. It may not be easy to speak up when you are experiencing low mood, anxiety, or depression due to stigma around mental health and mental illnesses. When people bring up feelings of sadness, depression, or loneliness, it can be perceived as being incompetent, lazy, or broken.
This is due to the false belief that mental illnesses can be attributed to personal traits, gender, or some arbitrary reason rather than a complex product of environmental and biological causes. Mental illnesses can lead to discrimination. Stigma can prevent people from seeking help for depression or anxiety. Stigma is real and it can lead to further isolation and potentiation of problems.
We have to acknowledge that mental health is health, too, and actively take care of it. Also, it is very important to educate ourselves about mental illnesses and their complex nature to prevent stigma and discrimination. People experiencing mental health problems or illnesses can function perfectly in society and live a healthy life.
It's not just about surviving, it's about thriving. It's enjoying life, having a sense of purpose, and being able to manage life's highs and lows
Mental health is about thriving, not surviving. It is being in a state where you are able to embrace what life throws at you. Being in a good mental health state means, you feel agency and power. It means being resilient and having an overall positive perspective on life. It is important to realize that strong mental health does not mean you are in a constant state of bliss or not being stressed at all. It means you find the strength in you to deal with life stresses and challenges.
How to improve our mental health?
Now, that we have a better understanding of what is mental health, we can look into ways to improve it. Mental health can be improved, similar to physical fitness. It can improve with conscious efforts of self-care and wellness practices.
There are excellent suggestions here in this article to promote positive mental health such as helping other people, participating in physical activity, eating well, and realizing your personal goals. I also compiled a list of self-care strategies that I personally find very helpful to improve my mental health positively.
Reach out and talk to people
Humans are social creatures. We love connecting with one another. If you are feeling low, think about the last time you had a heart to heart. Check-in with a trusted friend or family member. Talk to them. Kindly ask them to listen non-judgmentally. Tell them how you are feeling. If you need to, vent for a while even. Sometimes we just need some talking. If you don’t feel like talking, listening can be very therapeutic, too. So, pick up the phone and call your mother, partner or your best friend!
Write it down
There is something really therapeutic about having a dear-diary moment. It helps you to slow your thinking and put things into perspective. While writing, we use different parts of our brain and things may just become a little clearer. (It does happen to me every time I write) So sit down, take a blank sheet or notebook and write it out. Write down your thoughts and feelings in an uncensored way. It can be a letter (that you may never send) or an essay (that may either go to trash or to your blog later)
Read a book or listen to some music
It doesn’t matter whether you like fiction or non-fiction. (No one is judging!) Reading of any kind is great. Reading a book is the easiest way to time travel, they say. If you don’t like to read, you may not have found the right one (said J.K Rowling) Keep looking. Read a new book and enjoy learning a new concept or entering a new world.
If you don’t believe me hear what Charles W. Eliot said “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
If you are not a book worm, you can listen to music. Seriously, anything. It can change your mood instantly. You can listen to “angry” or relaxing songs. Totally up to you. I love listening to music while walking. Every time it puts me in a better state of mind.
We all know that it has been scientifically proven that exercise improves mood. When I say exercise, I can hear people thinking “Easier said than done while feeling down…” When we are feeling down, things slow down. Life becomes heavier. We don’t want to move our body too. (Another great way to prove the connection of mental & physical health!) I know. Hear me out.
By exercise, I do not mean you have to do a 45-minute workout with cardio. I mean, just take a walk. Around the block. Move your body. Even though you may not feel like it, do it. It helps you to put your thoughts in order. There is something magical about physical movement. It creates flow; bodily and flow. So “take a hike”.
Volunteer & Help others
Helping others is a great way of helping yourself. Yes, you read right. Thinking about ourselves and our problems may not take us far sometimes. What could be helpful is to realize how much we actually have and feel grateful. We can always give back to our community. So, volunteer at a community agency. Help at a coat drive, library, or at a soup kitchen. Helping others will make you feel grateful that you can give to others in need.
Know yourself, the signs for not-so-good state of mental health and ask for help
This is one of the most important self-care strategies that I can swear by.
Imagine you have a sensor. A barometer of your mental state. They are your feelings. Feelings are information about our mental state. We need to be mindful of our feelings. They carry valid information. Observe how you are feeling. If you are feeling sad or down, you may be in need of connection. If you are feeling angry, you might be feeling hurt, misunderstood deep down. Observe your feelings as the signs of the state of mental well-being. It doesn’t mean you need to be happy all the time. It means you need to be mindful of your feelings and let them be. The good, bad, and the ugly ones. Let them be, let them pass. A good night’s sleep might be just what you need to reset your mind.
If you try multiple ways to improve your mood, either the ones listed above or many other uplifting activities out there, but you are feeling still low – after a couple of weeks, maybe it is time to reach out to someone professional and ask for help.
My personal therapy journey has been the best investment that I have made to myself and my mental health. I truly believe asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. You can and will feel better with time and help. Reach out.
What not to do when you are in a not-so-good mental state…
Do not overdrink or overspend or overeat.
I know the power of a margarita (or two sometimes…) the beauty of retail therapy, or eating a bag of chips. I admit that they help. To a certain extend.
I believe drinking, spending, and eating should be done in moderation, not to numb ourselves. After all, excessive drinking, spending, or eating will lead to bigger problems and guilt in the long term. They are not healthy or productive coping mechanisms.
It is OK to lean on them, sometimes. Do whatever you need to do. In moderation, hopefully. Then move on to healthier coping strategies to improve your mental health.
As someone, who is coping with depression and anxiety, on a daily basis;
I assure you; you are not alone. There is nothing wrong with you. It is okay to feel the way you feel. If you feel lonely, depressed, or sad, it is okay. Especially in the middle of a global pandemic… Give yourself some grace.
Do not suffer in silence if you are feeling depressed, lonely, or anxious continuously. There is help. You are not alone. Things can and will change. Please, reach out for help.
Let’s keep the conversation going on mental health.
Below there are some helpful links for Canadian Mental Health Resources.
Hope this article and the resources that I share here helps in some way.
Jan 28, 2021
List of helpful mental health resources in Canada with links
· Connex Ontario: Information about Mental Health, Addictions, and Problem Gambling Services in Ontario
· togetherall: An online service for helping anxiety, depression or other mental health issue
· WellTrack: An interactive self-therapy app
· Wellness Together Canada: Resources and support for Canadians on their mental health journey
· Skills for Change - Mental Health and Wellbeing Programs and Services, One – one counseling and workshops
· Living life to the full: CMHA’s 8-week CBT based skill-building program
· Bounce Back: CMHA’s free skill building program to help adults and youth 15+ to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety
· Tangerine Walk-In Counseling: Free counseling for children & youth ( up to age 18) and their parents, caregivers or adult supporters.
· EveryMind: Program to provide coordinated access to mental health services for infants, children, youth, young adults (up to age 25) and families who live in the Region of Peel
· Wheretostart.ca: Access to mental health services for children and youth
· Alone in Canada – 21 Ways to make it better a self-help guide for single newcomers – a booklet
Disclaimer: This is a shortlist of resources, services that I personally complied as I came across as a newcomer in Canada. It may not be comprehensive and does not mean endorsement of any of these agencies or services. This post is not intended for medical diagnosis. Please consult a mental professional for medical advice if you are experiencing any mental health issues. If you experiencing a medical emergency call 911. If you are in a mental health crisis, please check crisis resources from CAMH.