We usually don’t think about mental health until we or someone we know is struggling. And even then, we rarely ask: “what is mental health?” Instead, we often chase after symptoms and diagnoses and other signs of what mental health isn’t.
This pathological approach puts a lot of focus on mental illness and labels and not enough emphasis on individuals and their inherent strengths and healing potential.
We believe emotional distress (what others may call “mental illness”) is a universal experience that should not be labeled or stigmatized. Suffering presents an opportunity for each of us to discover what mental health is and how we can best achieve it.
Some of the best definitions of mental health come from individuals and families who have experienced mental health challenges and have gone on to lead meaningful lives.
Hopefulness and vitality—Mental health includes a sense of hopefulness about the future, a passion for life, personal interests, goals and dreams. It can be supported through spirituality and/or values that give meaning and purpose to life.
Connectedness—Having supportive and meaningful relationships is essential to mental health. This includes a capacity for emotional intimacy, trust, empathy, a feeling of belonging and being able to contribute to the well being of others.
Empowerment—Another key aspect of mental health is the ability to determine our own future and make important life decisions. Empowerment includes the right to take risks and to fail. Independence, self esteem, motivation and responsibility are all signs of an empowered life.
Meaning and purpose—Imagine waking up in the morning without a purpose or reason for getting out of bed… We all need to feel that our lives have meaning and value. We all want to know that our lives matter and contribute to the greater good. Cultivating a spiritual life and a connection to a higher power may also be essential for maintaining mental health, hopefulness and a meaningful life.
Wellbeing—Mental health is a sense of wellbeing that develops when we are able to manage the full range of human emotions—including grief, despair, euphoria, and confusion—without getting stuck in any one state or defining ourselves by our emotions. Wellbeing is supported by self awareness and self care.
Physical Health—Physical health is very important for mental health. We improve our overall wellbeing when we eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise, manage stress and maintain our connection with the natural world.
Personal Growth—Life is a process of physical growth, renewal and change. For human beings, growth also includes emotional and intellectual learning and healing. We develop resilience, health and wisdom when we approach our challenges as opportunities for growth.
Further Reading (PDFs):
• Hope Is Real
• Boston University Center for Psychiactric Rehabilitation, Fact Sheets:
— Recovery from Serious Mental Illnesses
— Employment Outcomes