We hear a lot about the importance of mental health, but there’s a chance you might be wondering what it means to have good mental health.
When I ask clients to define what mental health means to them, many say it’s about being positive and free from unpleasant thoughts and negative emotions.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as, “a state of well-being in which the individual can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” In a nutshell, good mental health gives us the capacity to deal with whatever shows up in life, just as good physical health helps us to better manage physical illnesses or injuries we experience.
If we think about physical health, we typically don’t wait until something goes wrong before we look after it. For example, you might take morning walks, stretch, go to the gym, eat healthily, and drink plenty of water. We know healthy habits won’t stop us from getting ill or being injured, but we also know that taking care of our physical health reduces the risk of ill-health and increases the likelihood we’ll heal quicker should we fall ill or become injured.
Prof Alvin Ng often shares insights on social media on the importance of mental health. As one of Malaysia’s leading mental health advocates, he frequently reminds us of the need to take care of our psychological well-being.
In one post, he wrote, “I’ve seen counsellors, psychologist and yes, even psychiatrists for help with mental health challenges. They’re professionals who are trained to help with evidence-based methods that work. It did me a lot of good. There is no health without mental health. You don’t need to be seriously stressed before seeking help.”
One reason it might be difficult for people to grasp the concept of mental health is because it’s often confused with mental illness. But the two are different.
Put simply, mental health reflects our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and affects how we relate to others, make decisions, and deal with challenges. It’s something we always have. On the other hand, mental illness refers to conditions that affect our thinking, feeling, mood, or behaviour. These can include clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. According to the WHO, one-in-four people globally will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. That said, just like a physical illness, mental illnesses aren’t necessarily permanent. Many people recover to some degree, or completely, from their conditions with the help of effective treatment.
It’s possible to have good mental health while having a diagnosed mental illness. It’s also possible to experience poor mental health without having a mental illness. Contrary to misguided beliefs, good mental health is not about being happy all the time. That’s not possible and, even if it were, life would soon feel empty if we only experienced one emotion out of the many that exist. Good mental health is about being able to live and cope well despite problems.
At the age of 17, I was diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder – something I struggled with for 10 years (it still visits from time to time). My favourite philosopher back then was Arthur Schopenhauer and I loved – and still love – the music of Leonard Cohen. Despite their respective reputations for pessimism and melancholy, these icons taught me that life isn't one long feel good Beach Boys album. Interestingly, Brian Wilson – the genius behind the Beach Boys – struggled with mental illness throughout his life.
A meaningful life is about meeting yourself where you are and accepting reality as it is, not how you wish it could be. Wishful thinking leads to a great deal of suffering. From this vantage point, we're able to understand ourselves better and be in a better position to live well, cope well, and flourish. Brian Wilson and I are in good company alongside Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Alexander Hamilton, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven. All of these historical figures wrestled with mental health problems, and they're among the Western leaders we often point to as examples of great strength and resilience.
Today, celebrities such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Lady Gaga are among several leading stars to have struggled with mental health issues and talked openly about it. Having conversations, getting help when needed, and being open when we’re ready to share our own struggles are just some of the ways we can bring mental health into the light and learn more about it.
The sooner we can understand the importance of mental health – and the myths and misconceptions around it – the better off we’ll all be, not least of all because people will no longer need to struggle or suffer alone in silence.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.