The question of what mental health really means stimulated a lot of cranking of brains and conversation at the recent ThinkActChange meetup. For too long it’s been synonymous with mental illness, and for many there is still no distinction between the two. It’s something we’ve worked to change through student groups, because as long as this misunderstanding persists, there will still be a lot of fear around discussing the topic, and a great many people who don’t seek out the support they need as a result.

Take the parallel with physical health. Physical health is not necessarily associated with having a cold, or fracturing an ankle, or god forbid, breaking a nail. It’s about wellness and proactive maintenance of good physical health. We achieve this through nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep. But as soon as you mention mental health, the association is immediately with depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia… There is, however, another side to it.

It’s when you start really exploring this other side that the answers become more challenging. There’s been so little interest in what it is that keeps us mentally healthy, with psychology for years predominantly researching why and how abnormalities occur – and then how they can be fixed. How they could be prevented, and that they can be prevented is a line of thought only recently gathering momentum. If you’re interested then take a look at the growing field of positive psychology. Shawn Achor’s ‘The Happiness Advantage’ is an insightful read, and will probably benefit the way you live your life.

I found myself pretty stumped when asked what it means to be mentally healthy, which surprised me as a lot of our work through students has featured the methods we promote for staying mentally healthy. One of the panel made a great suggestion, which is that it is about understanding your mind and the way you’re feeling, and being able to handle – with the support of those around you – the inevitable bumps that life delivers.

For me this is where it all begins, with acceptance. And accepting how you really, genuinely feel is something I don’t think many of us are good at. It’s much easier when we’re happy, but no matter how mentally healthy you are, you won’t always feel happy. That’s unrealistic, and not how we’re wired. Nonetheless, we like to give off that impression – to show people how awesome our lives are. How many people’s Facebook profile photos are of them smiling? Biologically, we’re more drawn to people who give off that happy vibe, so it makes sense that we try to give off this persona. But at times that just means that you’re pretending – to others and to yourself.

When someone is struggling emotionally, we’ve identified that the first thing that must happen in order for that individual to start tackling the issue that’s causing those feelings, is to simply acknowledge that they are struggling. That they’re not happy. That they feel really, really miserable and it sucks. And there will be many times in our lives that we do feel that way, and in every case there’s a good reason for it.

Acceptance also benefits us in the long run. I believe that we all have good natural instincts, but that in many people these are curbed over time by fear, social expectations or an over-reliance on logic. And the less you trust those natural instincts, the less reliable they become – because they’re not having a chance to learn and develop. We’re also neurologically wired to learn that way. Our brains are exceptional at being able to project a possible course of action in to the future and from there determine whether we should pursue this action or choose another. And how does the brain learn? Through experience, of course.

By accepting how a situation or outcome makes us feel, and not pretending it makes us feel the way we want it to make us feel, we can learn and hone our instincts. Now when you find yourself in a similar situation, you instinctively know how that previously used action will make you feel. If it’s positive, you’ll probably repeat it. If not, you probably won’t. And you can’t get around that with logic. Reframing a situation you’re uncomfortable with will only get you so far. If it’s a job that makes you feel miserable, you can’t think your way around that and the self-denial will then hinder your instincts in other areas. You’re in danger of not really having a clue what does and doesn’t make you feel good, and that now sounds like a very confusing life to live.

I wouldn’t proclaim this as hard evidence, but I’ll throw in a little anecdote as I always find them helpful to illustrate a point. Towards the end of my fourth week in Sydney I found myself feeling flat, unmotivated and pretty frustrated. I was convinced that moving to Sydney and the Student Minds Project here would be very exciting – my projections in to the future left me with no doubt about this, and up until now they had been spot on.

I tried to think my way out of it, and not even the splendor of the Blue Mountains could help with that. Finally on Sunday evening I accepted that I really was feeling genuinely miserable, and then began to explore why. I spoke with a couple of people about it, and a couple of realizations then dawned on me (in this case it was to do with not having enough variety in my life, and not knowing people well enough here). From there I switched my focus to spending more time getting to know people, acknowledged that good friendships do take time to build, and started to pursue a couple of other projects I’m interested in. The few days that followed have been a big improvement, and my instincts are a little better as a result of this learning experience.

For myself and for many others who have shared their experiences openly, part of the experience of depression is anhedonia; a flatness of emotion. I had so little notion of how a course of action would make me feel that decision-making became terribly difficult.

Even as I recovered I became very self-protective against negative emotions and developed a tendency to block them out. It pains me to admit, but it’s taken me several years to reach the same level of trust in my feelings and intuition that I had before I became depressed. It’s a huge personal challenge to expose yourself to your whole emotional spectrum again in the knowledge that it includes the misery you once experienced every day. But without accepting those feelings exist, you’re shutting off parts of what’s inside you. For me, I’ve come to realize that I know and understand the depths of my own emotion, and developed a comfort in my ability to handle it. At times I notice certain feelings, that if ignored and allowed to fester could lead me down the route again. The difference is now I acknowledge them and act on them quickly.

To be mentally healthy, I believe you must start by accepting – to yourself, and then to others – how you feel at any one time. Don’t put on a face. Because if it’s a feeling that you don’t want to become a common theme, by acknowledging it you can then take action in your life to reduce the likelihood of it coming up. Your brain is wired to help you out with that. And it works with positive feelings too – by being more tuned in to them, you can then repeat the actions that brought them about, which could be anything – grabbing coffee with a friend, listening to a piece of music, or picking weeds (hey, I’m not judging). And you don’t need to take a university course to acquire this ability; it’s hard-wired in to the brains of every single one of us.

How about we begin making the most of this gift.

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