Why is Mental Health Important?
When we think about health conditions that affect one out of every five people we know, we might think about high blood pressure, obesity, or high cholesterol, but how many people think about mental illness? Mental illness is one of the most common health issues in the United States, affecting approximately one out of every five American adults, or 46.6 million people. As the saying goes, “There is no health without mental health,” but why is mental health so important? The reality is that although we often think of mental health as causing mental or emotional symptoms, mental health issues can, and often do, have physical manifestations and can affect our lives in significant ways.
What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?
Mental health is often conflated with mental illness, but the two are separate.
Mental health refers to a person’s psychological health, emotional health, and social well-being, and it impacts the choices we make, how we think, how we act, and how we feel. Everything from how a person handles stress to how they relate to other people can be affected by a person’s mental health, and mental health can change throughout our lives. At any point in time, people may begin to experience mental health problems, even if they have never had an issue before.
Mental illness, on the other hand, is a group of conditions that impact a person’s mood, behavior, thoughts, or feelings. Mental illnesses can be intermittent in frequency, affecting people only occasionally, or they can be chronic and long lasting, often requiring some form of mental health services or professional help to help manage the illness, even if it's just once weekly therapy sessions. Examples of mental illnesses include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and other mental disorders.
It’s important to note that it is possible for a person diagnosed with a mental illness to experience periods of positive mental health, and at the same time, it is possible for someone to have poor mental health and not have a diagnosable mental illness.
What causes mental illness?
There is no singular cause for mental illness, as there are many factors that contribute to the onset of mental illness. However, certain factors do put individuals at higher risk for experiencing mental illness, including:
- Biological factors, including genetic predisposition and chemical imbalances in the brain
- Feelings of loneliness or isolation
- Early adverse life experiences, including a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- Experiences with a chronic medical condition, including cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
- Having few friends
What are some signs of declining mental health?
Because our mental health can change over time, it is important to keep an eye out for early signs of declining mental health in both yourself and the loved ones around you. While each mental health disorder has its own set of specific signs and symptoms, some warning signs are common to many mental illnesses and may precipitate a decline in mental health. Early warning signs of declining mental health can relate to both behavioral health and physical illness, and can include:
- Abnormal sleeping or eating patterns
- Decrease in energy
- Feeling confused, angry, on edge, forgetful, or nervous
- Severe mood swings
- Sharp increase in alcohol or drug use
- Withdrawing from activities and people you once enjoyed
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Struggling to perform daily tasks
- Thoughts of self harm
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Increased arguments with family and friends
- Repetitive thoughts or memories that won’t go away
- Hearing voices that are not there or believing things that are not true
- Feelings of numbness
Why is mental health important?
Mental health is important because it impacts our quality of life, and how we live our lives each day. When people have good mental health, they are more likely to experience physical wellness, make meaningful contributions to their families and communities, realize their full potential, handle stress more easily, have positive relationships, and work productively. People with poor mental health may struggle to manage their emotions in day to day situations and may have difficulty sustaining positive personal relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. It’s natural to experience fluctuations in your mental health over time, particularly when dealing with challenging life events or experiencing periods of intense happiness. A person with good mental health is able to better navigate these challenges and maintain a positive outlook that can help sustain them through difficult times.
What does it mean to have good mental health?
While everyone’s definition of what it means to have good mental health or be mentally healthy is slightly different, people with strong mental health generally have some or all of the following characteristics:
- A overall feeling of contentment
- The capacity to handle stress and rebound from adversity
- The ability to learn new skills and adapt to changing situations
- The ability to create and sustain meaningful and fulfilling relationships
- Excitement for life and the ability to laugh and enjoy oneself
- A feeling of having meaning or purpose in life, in both personal relationships and activities
- Sufficient balance of work, play, relaxation, and activity
- Good self-confidence and self-esteem
Is it possible to improve your mental health?
Thankfully, it is possible to improve your mental health condition. While some people may need to consider treatment options like visiting a mental health professional or taking medications like antidepressants or anxiolytics, other people may be able to manage and improve their mental health by making lifestyle changes.
Increasing your activity
One of the best ways to improve your mental health is through regular exercise and physical activity. Physical activity is linked to lower rates of depression and other mental illnesses and also helps to release stress, improve sleep quality, and improve memory retention. If exercising more sounds impossible when you’re already suffering from low energy, don’t be discouraged. You don’t need to run marathons to improve your mental health. Even going on a walk on your lunch break, dancing to your favorite song, or playing fetch with your dog can help boost your endorphins and improve your mood.
Stress is challenging for many people to manage, and it can be even more difficult if you are struggling with your mental health and find managing your emotions challenging. If you’re feeling stressed, there are several ways to help lower your stress levels and manage your stress. Try connecting with a supportive friend or family member and talking with them about your situation, increasing the amount of time you spend doing activities you enjoy, or consider taking up a mindfulness or relaxation practice like yoga or meditation. Practicing gratitude and reminding yourself of all of the things you have to be thankful for can also help, as can experimenting with sensory experiences, like aromatherapy in the form of essential oils. Lowering your stress levels can be challenging, especially if you feel like there is nothing you can do to improve your work or home situation that is causing you stress, but the way you deal with stress can be changed.
Make social connections
No matter how introverted you might be or how much you think you enjoy being alone, humans are social creatures and we need some social interaction in order to meet our emotional needs for relationships and positive connections. As difficult as it can be to meet up face-to-face during a global pandemic, you can still create positive social interactions through video calls or smiling and making small talk with a stranger. You don’t have to have deep talks about your feelings with everyone you meet, but if you can find a friend or family member who is able to listen empathetically and help you work through your thoughts or emotions, you’re likely to notice an improvement in your mood and overall health.
Get enough sleep
If your busy life is getting in the way of your sleep, it’s time to make some changes. Your mental health is influenced by getting enough sleep, because skipping a few hours even occasionally can impact your energy level, mental acuity, ability to deal with stress, and mood, and it can also impact your physical health. Adults should aim to receive at least seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night, while teenagers and adolescents need even more. In order to improve your likelihood of getting enough sleep, practice good sleep hygiene and begin winding down your electronics at the end of the day.
Eat a balanced diet
They say you are what you eat, and while that’s not entirely true, the food you eat does play a role in your energy level and mental health. Things like sugary snacks, fried food, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, and caffeine all contribute negatively to your mental health and can cause a deterioration in your mental health, while foods like avocados, leafy greens, fresh fruits, beans, and fatty fish all contribute to improved mental health. Eating a healthy, well balanced diet not only improves your mood and energy levels, it also helps contribute to an overall sense of well-being and control when you feel capable of managing your body properly.