It has always been easier to define mental illnesses than to define mental health. In the United States the American Psychiatric Association has traditionally been the organization to define mental disorders (beginning as early as 1917 when it was known as The Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions of the Insane). More recently many have recognized that mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. Even though many of us don't suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, it is clear that some of us are mentally healthier than others. Here are a few ideas that have been put forward as characteristics of mental health:
• The ability to enjoy life - The ability to enjoy life is essential to good mental health. James Taylor wrote that "The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time. Any fool can do it. There ain't nothing to it." The practice of mindfulness meditation is one way to cultivate the ability to enjoy the present. We, of course, need to plan for the future at times; and we also need to learn from the past. Too often we make ourselves miserable in the present by worrying about the future. Our life metaphors are an important factors that allow us to enjoy life
• Resilience - The ability to bounce back from adversity has been referred to as "resilience." It has been long known that some people handle stress better than others. Why are some Vietnam combat veterans handicapped for life, while others become United States senators? Why do some adults raised in alcoholic families do well, while others have repeated problems in life? The characteristic of "resilience" is shared by those who cope well with stress.
• Balance - Balance in life seems to result in greater mental health. We all need to balance time spent socially with time spent alone, for example. Those who spend all of their time alone may get labeled as "loners," and they may lose many of their social skills. Extreme social isolation may even result in a split with reality. Those who ignore the need for some solitary times also risk such a split. Balancing these two needs seems to be the key - although we all balance these differently. Other areas where balance seems to be important include the balance between work and play, the balance between sleep and wakefulness, the balance between rest and exercise, and even the balance between time spent indoors and time spent outdoors.
• Flexibility - We all know people who hold very rigid opinions. No amount of discussion can change their views. Such people often set themselves up for added stress by the rigid expectations that they hold. Working on making our expectations more flexible can improve our mental health. Emotional flexibility may be just as important as cognitive flexibility. Mental healthy people experience a range of emotions and allow themselves to express these feelings. Some people shut off certain feelings, finding them to be unacceptable. This emotional rigidity may result in other mental health problems.
• Self-actualization - What have we made of the gifts that we have been given? We all know people who have surpassed their potential and others who seem to have squandered their gifts. We first need to recognize our gifts, of course, and the process of recognition is part of the path toward self-actualization. Mentally healthy persons are in the process of actualizing their potential. In order to do this we must first feel secure.
These are just a few of the concepts that are important in attempting to define mental health. The ability to form healthy relationships with others is also important. Adult and adolescent mental health also includes the concepts of self-esteem and healthy sexuality. How we deal with loss and death is also an important element of mental health. Please consider sharing your own ideas about mental health in the Forum.
Source: Taylor, James, 1977. Secret O' Life Album: JT; Professional experience of 25 years as a practicing clinical psychologist.