As conversations about mental health become increasingly, thankfully, more mainstream, it’s more important than ever to get clear on the language we use to discuss it. What’s “good” mental health anyway? Here are some necessary definitions before we get down to answering that question.
Mental Health and Mental Illness
According to the CDC, mental health is multifaceted: it’s comprised of our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and it affects our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Mental illness is categorized in two ways, depending on severity. All Mental Illness (AMI) refers to a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. Serious Mental Illness (SMI) refers to the same, but to such a degree that it significantly impedes your ability to lead a normal life — ie, to hold a job, or to fulfill your usual family obligations. Going through a period of poor mental health doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental illness. Similarly, those who have been diagnosed with mental disorders can go through stretches of good mental health — and extending these stretches is one of the goals of treatment.
“Good” Mental Health
What it means to have good mental health can be a little more nebulous, but it goes beyond simply the lack of diagnosed mental illnesses. Mentally healthy people:
- Have high self esteem
- Develop coping mechanisms to help them with daily stressors
- Maintain strong relationships
- Consider themselves a part of communities
- Are mentally flexible and open to learning new things
These attributes come together to produce feelings of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction, which protect against the development of mental health issues. They also contribute to something called “mental resilience,” a key factor in preserving emotional well being.
What is Mental Resilience?
Mental resilience refers to a kind of mental toughness — though not in a harmful “suck it up and tough it out” kind of way. Instead, psychological resilience describes an adaptiveness and flexibility that allows you to successfully overcome life’s adversities. Between workplace woes, financial hardship, and unprecedented global health crises, modern life has plenty of stressors, and a strong sense of mental resilience is required to deal with them, nerves intact. Developing resilience doesn’t mean that an individual won’t deal with emotional distress, but rather that they have built a skill set that allows them to confront traumatic experiences and thrive in the face of them.
The American Psychological Association writes that building mental resilience requires intentionally developing four core components: connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning. By focusing on these factors, anyone can learn how to maintain good mental health even in the toughest situations.
- Staying connected reminds us we are not alone. Emotional downturns tend to lead us to isolation, but making the effort to stay connected to loved ones can make all the difference. Maintain the relationships you have with virtual options or covid-safe in-person get togethers, and consider joining interest groups in your area to expand your social circle.
- Wellness means taking care of your mind and your body. It really can’t be said enough: staying active and eating a healthful diet does wonders for your mental health. Even just 30 minutes of exercise a few times a week can improve mood, cognition, and sleep — another key component of living a healthy lifestyle. Soothe your mind with mindfulness techniques like meditation, journaling, and spiritual practices like prayer.
- Keep your thoughts grounded. Times of trouble can lead to catastrophizing, but you can combat this by challenging your most extreme thoughts and considering more realistic options. Staying hopeful can be difficult, but it’s true there’s power in positive thinking: try to remind yourself that tough times don’t last forever and there is a way out.
- Find a purpose that keeps you motivated. Creating meaning in your life sounds like a matter of grand scale, but it can be simple: it’s just something that gets you out of bed every morning. Maybe that’s volunteering for a cause that matters to you; maybe it’s following a sports team whose season you want to see through to the end; maybe it’s getting a pet to take care of. Deriving purpose in your life helps you feel good about yourself, and it can often be the driving force that keeps you pursuing the other facets of good mental health.
Developing mental resilience requires some work, and sometimes treatment. There’s no shame in reaching out and taking your mental health into your own hands with the help of your family, friends, and trusted professionals.