When it comes to our mental health, we can assume we've got it covered, we know ourselves best and, after all, our minds are our most intimate and private space - but what does our mental health really mean and what does taking care of it actually require?
As a good foundation, it's key to understand that mental health and mental illness are not the same thing, though are often spoken about interchangeably. Our mental health is a constant, just like our physical health, sitting not-always-so-neatly inside the control room of our wellbeing. Mental illness is something that can effect us on a larger scale, interrupting the flow of our lives and how we interact with the world around us.
Mental health covers our day to day coping, thought patterns and how we get by when things are on top form as well as when it feels like the wheels are falling off. Mental health challenges or obstacles will effect everyone, while mental illnesses won't, which may even come and go in episodes. It's possible to have poor mental health but no mental illness just as it is possible to have good mental health and have a mental illness.
In my experience, caring for mental health is learned and requires time, patience and respect. I observe it like a garden; while I can't control the climate, I can forecast, plant, weed and tend to it, and these flowers will thrive in bloom just as they are hardy in all seasons. Good mental health doesn't mean things are always rosy, it doesn't mean there aren't off days, but it does mean that we give it the acknowledgement, room and space it deserves.
Here are 3 insights from my own journey exploring and managing mental health:
1. Check In
While questions like "how are you?" can often reap reflex reactions of "yeah, fine" or "all good", they're not always a true reflection of our state of mind. True say, divulging current anxieties, heart ache or lack of sleep to a co-worker or boss aren't exactly appropriate for an 8:30am meeting but there's something to be said for asking yourself or a friend for an honest answer.
Take time to regularly check in with yourself, with trusted friends and if needed, with your GP or trained professional with an honest review of where you're at. In addition, sending a quick text or arranging a coffee with a friend you feel may need a listening ear can make a huge difference to someone, Mind have excellent resources for supporting others. Sometimes a "hey pal" will be just what someone needs to get them back on track, but always encourage others to speak with their GP if it sounds like they need it.
2. Get Serious
When issues arise, take them seriously. Mental health challenges such as stress can have a huge impact on our lives, and even provide key warning signs of underlying mental health illness, such as depression. While not every mental health issue equals mental illness, it can still lead us down some dark rabbit holes before we truly realise quite how far we've gone.
Just as we may focus on a healthy physical body, appearance or bank balance, insisting our mental health is a priority will benefit all areas of our lives. Taking our mental health seriously can help us to be aware of detrimental behavioural patterns, in both ourselves and others.
3. Patience & Respect
Escape it as we may try, our mental health cannot be switched off. Just as our hearts beat and time goes on, our wellbeing and mental health is a constant in our lives that cannot be ignored. Correction: we can ignore it. Recommendation: don't. Ignoring it will only last so long and within time the compounding effects of this will not benefit anyone.
Our mental health does not always require our full attention, often ticking along nicely, but when it does, be patient. Simply think of it like brushing teeth - a little attention daily, nice, job done. But turn a blind eye to that rotting tooth for too long and you'll be left with much more than a bad taste in your mouth. Finding patience and discovering respect for our mental health and that of others gives us the permission to live alongside it like any other fact of life. Respect it.
Our Mental Health and wellbeing will be ever growing resources as we continue to learn about how best we respond, so sharing the highs and lows with those around us can be helpful. Let's continue to be kind to one another, uplift, share stories and encourage our communities to be tireless in raising awareness and furthering education around mental health.
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