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

Navigate in this post:

What is mental health?

How to improve our mental health?

What not to do when you are in a not-so-good mental state…

List of helpful mental health resources in Canada

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.