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What Does It Mean to Be Mentally Healthy?

Self-awareness and acceptance are important tools for mental health

Today is World Mental Health Day. As part of the psychology community (of a sort) both as a consumer and a professional in the psychology field, I walk a line between my own personal experience of what some might call 'mental illness' (depression and anxiety) and helping people who might be called or who consider themselves 'mentally ill.' As you can see, I have some ambivalence about the term 'mental illness'. I think the term carries a huge amount of stigma, and that most people who seek help for their mental health issues are not so much ill as out of balance. Obviously, mental illness is real and many people suffer incredibly with severe mental illness. But the average person who takes antidepressants, for instance, or prescription anti-anxiety medications, are not 'mentally ill', they're simply having trouble finding a healthy mental balance.

For me, mental health lies on a continuum. There is no place where we will be perfectly mentally sane - as in, never having a low mood or acting in an unhealthy way, never having negative self-talk, never needing an escape from reality in the form of compulsive behavior - but there are degrees of imbalance, from occasionally feeling melancholy on grey days to full-blown delusional psychosis. Clearly, on the severe side of the spectrum, people need professional medical assistance. But most of us who struggle lie closer to the other side. We get sad and can't shake it, get anxious in certain situations, do to much of something (shopping, watching TV, gambling, drinking, eating) sometimes, or make unhealthy decisions rooted in psychological issues we've developed over the course of our lives.

In my personal mental healthy journey, I've found two things to be of utmost importance in living well with my brain's particular tendencies: Compassionate self-awareness and acceptance. I've learned that to cope well with the cards I've been dealt in terms of genetic disposition, inherent temperament, and the wounds that life has given me, I have to become gently aware of them in the first place. This doesn't mean seeing them as flaws or weaknesses, but as part of me the way my hair, eyes, and nose are part of me. We all know people who hate their hair, eyes, nose, or other body part, and even sometimes go to drastic (and expensive) lengths to fix those things. Generally, even when someone has a full plastic surgery makeover, they're still unhappy, because the unhappiness always went deeper than the particular thing they were obsessed about. For me, becoming compassionately self-aware of the underlying psychological needs that drive me (for better or for worse) means that I can explore those needs in a kind way rather than hunt them down in some kind of search-and-destroy mission that will make me feel broken and weak. I don't believe my psychological issues will ever 'go away'. All that I can do is get to know them and learn to cope better with them. Tools for this, for me, include meditation, mindfulness, getting more exercise and time in nature, getting enough sleep, eating well, learning to connect better with others, seeing a therapist regularly, and yes, occasionally taking prescription anti-anxiety medications.

Similarly, acceptance doesn't mean just lying down in a wailing heap and waiting for my brain to do me in, as I've sometimes felt it wants to; acceptance means understanding who I am and not fighting against that knowledge. I am a person - as we all are - with particular tendencies, both healthy and unhealthy. It would be a waste of time, not to mention spectacularly disrespectful of myself, to want to be different than I am at my core: a good, kind, caring, and light-filled being. When we can accept who we are, we can go about making changes that make us more of who we already are inside underneath all of the psychological defenses and other gunk that drive us to escape the pain around us. This also makes it easier to accept others for who they really are, and not for who we want them to be.

So on World Mental Health day, I encourage all of us to take some time to congratulate ourselves for having made it this far with the good things that we do have - the love of friends and family, our health (however it may be. As someone once said :"If you're still breathing, you're doing fine"), the lives we've been able to build, and our brains and bodies that have kept us alive. Even though I know being alive sometimes hurts, it's important to take the time to be grateful for what we do have, and to gently acknowledge the places where we could seek more balance. Also, on this day, let's look at those around us - those wonderful, loving, sometimes confusing and spectacularly irritating other beings - and send them some compassion and acceptance as well. Like us, they're doing their best, and like us, they could probably make some changes. Life is hard. But we can live it well, even with mental illness or whatever term you want to use, by cultivating a gentle compassion towards ourselves and others.