#MentalHealthMatters Part 2: Mental Health is Health
A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.
We schedule our yearly physical appointments because we understand that we need to be checked out for changes in our physical health. We get weighed, screened for age appropriate illness, have our blood drawn and examined, and we get our required immunization shots, all to ensure that we are and will continue to run in proper working order. We understand that our physical health can change with our body within a year, but we seem not to make that correlation when it comes to emotional and mental health.
Mental Health = Physical Health
Mental health and physical health are intrinsically tied together. We understand that illnesses, changes in lifestyle habits, and traumatic accidents can all call for a doctors visit, because these things are so literal, and so tangible. However, mental health changes are usually less visible. We do not think of how mental health changes as well, like the stress of changes in our lives, the diagnosis of a chronic illness, or even the effects of an undiagnosed illness.
The problem is that we can't so easily ignore a cough or an achy back, but we can rationalize and justify our tears. We can tell ourselves that our symptoms of emotional illness are just a phase. But, just like an ignored cough can turn into bronchitis or pneumonia, ignored tears can in time worsen into depression or suicidal thoughts. Most people think that last statement is a tad dramatic, and that is exactly the problem. It is not. We take for granted what a lifetime of built-up and ignored emotions can do. Even if having regular unexplained crying spells do not lead to depression, there is almost a 100% guarantee that those emotions have manifested somewhere else in this person's life, be it in emotional eating, drinking, smoking, anger or abuse in their relationships, or even overworking themselves to a point that they eventually break.
The shoe drops eventually; the question just becomes when and how, and it's usually at the worst possible time, when you are most stressed and least able to handle it. In the end, you wind up with a preventable illness, one that can likely reoccur even after you seek medical care.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste
We know of people who go to health retreat centers to change their diet and physical habits and their health problems vanish. Their chronic illnesses are well managed and they seem to be on their way to recovery. Within a few months to a few years, they often have reverted back to their original state, because their lifestyle has not changed. Their habits of mind and ways of coping have not changed. This is the core argument; our physical and emotional condition is a result of years and years of conditioning that have been at play at since birth. The problems that we have in life took years to get to, and a simple pill or a few weeks in a sterile environment will not change our natural inclinations. Our physical and emotional condition are inextricably tied together. If our minds are unfit and unhealthy, it will manifest in our bodies and in our feelings.
The brain is our most crucial body part. Without it we can only live in a vegetative state, but that's about it. The brain is the part of our body that controls all of our conscious behaviors. It absorbs the environment around us and tries its best to survive in it. As miraculous and powerful as the brain is, it cannot change the environment we were raised in. It cannot control the horror of the world around us. All the brain is able to do is try to process it, make sense of it and help us to move forward. This is an imperfect situation. As brilliant as our minds are, they can't tell, if not taught, that harsh voices from our past were wrong. They can't un-see the carnage of war. They can't undo messages of inferiority that society sends to us. Our brains, and therefore our emotions, absorb the world as it is handed to us, but the problem is that the world is often harmful to us. Mental health offers to examine the ways the world has scarred us to offer remedies to help us reprocess and strengthen our emotional cores. Our brains are a muscle - our muscles can't do sit-ups without training, and so our brains can't healthily process events without education and practice.
Mental Health is Health
Mental health is connected to all other areas of life that we hope to be successful in. Let's take a look at how emotional health intertwines with different areas of our lives:
Mental health and Physical health
As discussed above, our mental and physical health are closely tied together. One of the largest problems in North America is the obesity epidemic. This issue is strongly tied to poor emotional health. It is difficult to get up to work out if you are depressed. Additionally, inability to deal with one's emotions is known to cause overeating. There are many other addictions that are closely correlated with depression, such as alcoholism, drug use, eating disorders, gambling and more.
Mental health and Spiritual health
Poor emotional health can lead one to join environments, religious or otherwise, that thrive on shame and guilt, and leave us susceptible to exploitation. Also, it's hard to consistently and effectively practice any spiritual lifestyle well without a strong emotional foundation.
There is a reason that many psychotic breaks involve a religious or spiritual theme. When we are emotionally sick, we often find ourselves in a cycle of guilt and shame, which may cause us to struggle with the ideals found in a religious belief system. To make matters worse, sometimes, when a group is filled with numerous traumas, we can spread unhealthy habits around like a virus, such violating boundaries, codependency, bullying, and gossiping. To be the best Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Agnostic, Atheist, or anything, your mental health will be your ceiling. The healthier you are, the more fully you can live out your beliefs.
Mental health, School, and Careers
Mental health and emotional health are crucial to goal setting, motivation and focus. If you are unable to properly organize your thoughts and manage your feelings, it is much harder to succeed professionally and/or academically.
Many students I work with feel that they don't have time for self-care, counseling, or other mental health activities because they are swamped with work and/or homework. What I've found is that a breakdown is much more disruptive. We often say "I can't afford to take time right now". I say, "you can't afford not to!"
Mental health and Social Well-being
Good mental health helps facilitate good interpersonal skills and relationships. We enter unhealthy relationships when we suffer from unhealthy thought patterns or are unaware of difficulties we may be struggling through. People relate to us as we relate to ourselves, and when we function out of self-loathing or low self-esteem, others often follow suit and treat us the same way. It is said that the quality of our lives is equal to the quality of our relationships, and the quality of our relationships is tied to our mental health. Optimal mental health leads to an optimal life.
The stigmatization that happens with mental health has been the culprit that prevents people from actively taking care of their own mental fitness. If we decided to look at emotional health as we do physical health, we would understand that good mental health is a matter of taking care of our emotional well-being, and see that serious mental illness is a matter of unresolved emotional issues, just like cancer has to do with free radicals that have stayed in our bodies for too long. We could begin to change our overall health individually and also the landscape of our society at large.
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