Mental health – it’s not binary

Are you mentally ill? No? So you’re alright then.

What’s that? You’re not exactly alright either? I thought you said you weren’t mentally ill!

You see, that’s the problem with the conversation around mental health. We see it as a binary (like far too many things in this world but that’s for other posts. Many of them …). People are either mentally ill or they or not. People either have a mental health problem or they are fine. Only we know it’s not like that. Our own lived-experience isn’t like that.

One day we feel fantastic, on top of the world, ready to take on anything. The very next day we’re …meh! Not so chipper. Not really on it.

We need to think of mental health as more of a continuum. Like we think about our physical health.

When people enquire after our physical health, we tend to me much more nuanced. Some times we’ll say we feel great, really well – but most of the time we say something else. “Oh, not bad, fighting off a cold at the moment”. Or “OK but feeling a bit exhausted, it’s been a busy time lately”. Or “Actually, I’ve been a bit off colour lately”. Not ill, but not well either. Our physical health fluctuates all the time, doesn’t it? We might have an injury, or a long-standing ailment or impediment, or we might have a cold or some other passing illness. We’ll have good days and bad days. It’s not often that we have a critical illness that requires a major intervention or a stay in hospital but the rest of the time we can be anywhere on quite a wide scale.

That’s how our mental health is too. It’s rare that people are actually critically mentally ill and require treatment but the rest of the time we’re somewhere on a different but equally wide scale. We might be feeling a bit depressed because of a recent loss or setback, we might be suffering from a bit of anxiety because we face uncertain times, or one of many other little issues that are affecting us. We’re not suffering from mental illness but we are having a spell of poor mental health. We’re not quite our best selves, we’re not quite right with the world. It may pass of it’s own accord, or we may have to go and see someone for a bit of treatment to help us get through it. Just like we’d go to the doctor for some ointment for earache, or some physio on a twisted ankle.

The lesson to be learnt from this is that our mental health is something we need to pay attention to every bit as much as our physical health. We need to check in with ourselves on a regular basis and learn to listen to our mind and asses how we are, the same way that we need to tune in to our bodies. We need to adopt good habits to keep ourselves healthy, like making sure we get decent sleep and that we socialise with others and do the things we enjoy. We need do our mental workouts too, whether that’s meditation, an artistic practice or physical exercise. And when we start feeling unwell, we need to go and seek help and advice straight away.

Of course, the two are intertwined. Good physical health will aid good mental health, as a good diet and doing exercise will keep our minds healthy too. Whilst good mental health will help us keep in shape physically, enabling us to have the relaxed focus that enables higher levels of performance.

So let’s stop putting people into boxes. We all have mental health and we all have problems with it, we’re up and down from day to day (and sometime hour to hour or minute to minute). But every day we can take action to work towards a good mental state, every day we can do something to maintain our mental health.

Today I took a walk in the forest and did some meditation. What are you doing today for your mental good health?

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