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What is mental health?

    On 15 May, 2024

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The term mental health may have started sounding like a buzzword. Do we even know what it means? All of us are familiar with tough days, low moods and worries about the future. However, are they related to mental health?

Mental health is not the absence of symptoms

Think of mental health as a dynamic spectrum, much like physical health. It’s not a binary state of ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, but a continuum where we can be in better or worse health. You can have a chronic condition and be physically fit. Similarly, your mental health includes your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. You may be strong in one area and struggle in another.

Good mental health is not merely the absence of depression, anxiety, or other symptoms. It’s about living a good life. Jonathan Shedler, a psychologist and psychotherapist, defines psychological health as living with a greater sense of freedom and possibility. You may not be struggling with low mood or poor relationships, but it doesn’t mean you are living your life to the fullest.

Ten signs of mental health

Psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Nancy McWilliams lists ten signs of (good) mental health:

  1. Secure attachment. You have a secure attachment style when you can find a sense of safety in relationships. If you did not grow up in an environment where secure attachments were possible, a healthy long-term romantic relationship can help you move from an insecure attachment to a more secure attachment.
  2. Self-continuity. Self-continuity means that you are the same person as you move through life. You don’t flip from seeing yourself as all bad and then in another situation as all good. You also feel connected to your own body.
  3. Sense of agency. When you feel you have agency in your life, things don’t just happen to you. You can choose for yourself. You know you can influence the direction your life takes and your experiences. You can find freedom in even the hardest situations where most of what happens is beyond your control.
  4. Realistic and reliable self-esteem. When your self-esteem is good, you can evaluate yourself based on meetable standards and not fall apart when criticized. On the other hand, you don’t see yourself as exceptional and inflate your sense of self.
  5. Affect modulation: When you can regulate your emotions, you can keep yourself within a tolerable range of emotions. If you overregulate emotions, you control them rigidly. Conversely, if you underregulate emotions, you get completely overwhelmed by them.
  6. Capacity to reflect on the self and mentalize other people. When you are able to look at your mind, you can reflect on your own behavior, thoughts and feeling. This allows you to also imagine the subjective experience of others.
  7. Capacity to self-advocate and sacrifice for the larger community. You want to be able to look after your best interests without forgetting about the good of the community you live in. Different cultures emphasize these dimensions to varying digrees. Being able to both be good to yourself and to your community is a sign of psychological health.
  8. Vitality. When you have a sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and excitement, you are alive. You have something in you that enlivens you and connects to life.
  9. Acceptance of things that can’t be changed. Many aspects of life are not in your control. Some of them may have been deeply traumatic and harmful for you. When you accept that these experiences have shaped who you are and you can grieve for what was beyond your control, you move towards stronger well-being.
  10. Being able to love, work, and play. When all the above nine aspects of mental health are brought together, you are able to form close relationships and love the people in your life as they are. You will also engage in some meaningful work, whether paid or unpaid, and you can have fun, play and enjoy life.

Mental health improves over time in healthy relationships

None of the aspects of mental health are about symptom reduction. They are not about having specific techniques or skills to deal with challenges. These qualities are deeply rooted in a person’s being and way of life. They take time to develop over the course of one’s life in secure relationships or meaningful psychotherapy. Psychotherapy that lasts at least six months but may take over two years creates a safe relationship where you can improve your psychological, social, and emotional well-being.

If you want to improve your mental health with a qualified therapist, you can find one in our directory.

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