July 2, 2021

What is Mental Health?

As National Mental Health Awareness Month draws near, I can’t help but wonder how we define it. What exactly is mental health, especially now? 2020 and 2021 have been…rough. Heightened racial trauma, insurrection, spiking unemployment, social isolation, a pandemic with a death toll that keeps climbing. With all of these massive stressors and more, I don’t know anyone who’s operating at 100. Clients I worked with prior to the pandemic returned to counseling with a recurrence of symptoms. Folx I considered prime examples of wellness died by COVID-19 and suicide. I myself had to go up on my dose of anti-depressants to cope with so much outside of my control, proving that those of us who are supposed to know how to care for mental health are also struggling. 

What do we draw awareness to this month when mental health feels nebulous?

When I taught psychology, defining mental health was an exercise we did together as a class. My ultimate goal was to help my students arrive at the conclusion that mental health wasn’t the absence of wellness. Something can’t only be defined by what it isn’t. It has to be something in and of itself. Most discourse around mental health centers around mental health illness, like anxiety, depression or substance use disorders, which was what my students reflected in their initial answers. After more prompting, our conversations would touch on other areas of life. Social functioning, emotional functioning, financial, physical and spiritual functioning. For many of my students their capacity to be creative was a key marker of their optimal wellbeing, as was balance in their environment. Others focused on their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and how well these aspects of themselves responded to stress. Could they be productive? Could they live their best life? 

Playing with that exercise has different meaning for me today. I keep coming back to that last question. Am I living my best life? When I look at the question on paper, I have to modify it. Am I living my best life within the context of these things I didn’t know I would have to cope with? I want to say yes. But how do I know for sure? I haven’t lived through a pandemic before. How do I know if this is the best mental health I could have right now?

Maybe that’s the silver lining in this chaos, that we don’t have to compare our current functioning to our previous selves or to anyone else’s because no one can know if their wellness is optimal. If that’s true, then maybe we don’t have to beat ourselves up about not doing well. We know that in BIPOC communities mental health is a taboo topic. That stigma has slowly been eroding, but it’s still present. How many times have I heard my family say, “we just don’t do that,” when referring to mental health counseling? How many times have you? Maybe this National Mental Health Awareness Month, we stop telling each other that we shouldn’t talk about not doing well. Maybe instead we get real and talk about how hard it is to deal with everything. If we can get there, then I can’t help but hope that we can also start taking steps to define what our wellness could be given our current contexts. And maybe, with each other’s support, we can recover together.

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