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What does it mean to be mentally healthy?

What does it mean to you when people ask you about your mental health? You instantly think of your problems, am I right? Well I do!

Mental Health is a hot topic right now!! Everywhere you look people are (quite rightly!) having conversations about depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, self esteem, body confidence. Important conversations and I wanted to join in. Especially with Mental health awareness week being this week 13th – 19th May.

But I don’t want to just talk about the problems we are facing. I want to address the question – What does it mean to be mentally healthy?

How do we get to be ‘mentally healthy’, unless we can first address what it means to us? As individuals, and as a collective.

Does it mean never having experienced anxiety? depression? Or any of the vast labels and conditions that come under the banner of “mental health”? Or does it mean experiencing them and moving through them? Coping with them? Is it coping on a daily basis? Or having a good week? These targets can only be individual goals you set for yourself.

The reason, I wanted to pose this question is because I realised that if someone asked me “How is your mental health?” I would immediately relay to them my personal experience of depression, my anxiety, and also jump in with my loved ones experience of the same, as well as detailing their mental health breakdowns. I do this in part to make a connection – a metaphoric way of letting people know “I’ve been there too!” or “You’re not alone!”

But really I should answer with “My mental health is great! My anxiety is no longer crippling, I feel optimistic about the future and my potential. I can COPE!” due, in a large part, to an interest and pursuit of alternative therapies and stress busting treatments.

For me, as a sensitive, empathetic, intuitive person and healer, I don’t want people to feel alone in their suffering, so I share stories of how I have struggled and suffered too in the hope that it helps connect us in some way, and make them feel less alone.

However, I am starting to wonder if perhaps the answer and the connection we are looking for isn’t forthcoming because we are all still ‘stuck’ in the realm of our problems and not looking beyond it to where we want to get to; the future we want to create. A future where we feel good more often than we feel bad.

In today’s society – bombarded as we are with continual negative news story after news story - war, disaster, terrorism, abuse; it is no wonder we have an epidemic of anxiety. Who wouldn’t? When we are led to believe that our neighbours and colleagues could be paedophiles or terrorists? Maybe by ‘normalising’ aspects of the anxiety we feel as a society could help us move past it. One of the coping strategies that helps me overcome anxiety attacks is breaking them down and analysing them – why am I feeling this way? What is the scenario I am afraid of? How can I prevent it? Or control my reactions to it? I also like to look at history of the planet in terms of years and star systems – because for me, having some perspective on how small we are, how short our lives are, and how fleeting our time is, gives me perspective and makes my problems and anxieties feel small, but I understand it may have the opposite effect for you. This is why I don’t want to try and give anyone answers with this post – but merely pose the question.

So, for me with my anxiety – being ‘mentally healthy’ means getting through the day without shutting myself in the house and locking the doors, it is coping – and ‘feeling the fear’ but doing things anyway, using breathing techniques to get me through the panic. It started with just trying to get through a day at a time without feeling irrational, uncontrollable fear, now I’m in a place where I go for days and even weeks before the fear grips me.

With my experience of depression – being ‘mentally healthy’ for me manifested by not giving in! If I could find a way to get dressed, or get out of the house, or to lift my head above the duvet – I considered it a success. It might only have been for an hour that I coped for – but any success was a success. And once you start celebrating those wins, more of them will be forthcoming.

It isn’t easy! I have suffered from diagnosed depression twice in my life and more times that I didn’t see a Dr, and treated alone (after suffering/wallowing for months in silence!) I have never taken anti-depressant pills, so I can’t comment on them – although I have come off the contraceptive pill because I felt it was making my depression and mood swings worse! But ultimately as I said earlier- this has to be about your take on what being mentally healthy is. You have to take responsibility for what actions or treatments you try and finding what works for you! By switching your mindset you can very literally affect the brain chemistry and hormones within your brain. However, if you think you are chemically depressed – seek medical help. As a therapist that treats stress related conditions I am all too aware of how powerfully stress hormones can affect the body and, with depression, people’s failure to admit a problem often lengthens their recovery time.

I haven't suffered with depression for 6 years!! But everyone’s experience of mental health will be different and individual.

As a military and veteran wife, I see the struggles so so many veterans and their families go through! Veteran mental health is a serious issue with suicide rates amongst veterans going through the roof, and again it’s an issue we need to address and re-frame as a society. We train these healthy young men and women to go and defend our country and often witness and take part in things we wouldn’t want to even imagine, let alone be involved in! Yet they come back and are given little to no support to re-adjust. A lot of their mental health issues are not ‘disorders’, but normal physiological and psychological reactions to the life they have lived. As George Orwell said: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

We need to reassess the way we see their problems and find a way to offer our support when they come home. If you are a veteran/serving personnel who is struggling, please remember how strong you can be and seek help. There are lots of charities and support avenues open to you.

From an individual perspective – I was born surrounded by depression – my mum having suffered with it from before I was born until I was well into adulthood. My dad experienced a full mental health breakdown when I was about twenty and my eldest sister has also had her own battles with depression. Both my mum and my sister have gone through Cognitive behavioural therapy which has changed their outlook and coping strategies so much! They are both much happier even though their lives may have got harder. My sister has a son who has cerebral palsy, and her youngest has recently been battling leukaemia – yet DESPITE these setbacks, her mental health is in a better place than before. She is literally like my role model for any challenges, or mental health setbacks, because if she can cope with what she has had to deal with, I can! I asked her to be included in this discussion and she writes “being mentally healthy is when I can cope with everything life throws at me, it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle – I do, But it’s looking for the silver lining in everything. It’s realising the world can be shit sometimes and it’s nothing personal. It’s admitting your flaws and making peace with them – life is hard for everyone and there’s no point comparing yourself to anyone. It’s about finding something you enjoy and making time for it. It’s taking time for you and finding the real you and then loving that person.”

What do you do that is just for enjoyment? How do you make time for yourself? How do you love yourself?

Another friend, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they like to look at ways to help other people – because by helping others they boost their self esteem with so much more than just what they look like and posting the latest gym selfie! So, what do you base your self esteem on? How others view you? Or by what you contribute to the world?

I offer treatments in Reiki, reflexology, massage, aromatherapy and crystal healing as well as spiritual guidance with Angel cards. All of which can really benefit your physical and emotional well being. Have you tried any? Have you tried yoga? Or mindfulness? Meditation or swimming? My sister runs to keep her physical and mental well being on track- what do you do? What can you do? What do you want to do?

Mental health is a bitch! It’s a crisis that we are dealing with on a daily basis and on a global scale. We’ve never been so connected, yet felt so dis-connected as a species. Isolation and fear is what we need to overcome. We know how to make our bodies fitter, stronger, sexier- we are bombarded with so many adverts for supplements and gym memberships and role models of people who have changed their body shape/weight/fitness level – we need to start seeking and celebrating role models who are also mentally healthy!

I hope by sharing these little snippets you can somehow feel less alone. But also consider what it means to you to be mentally healthy, and start to work towards that - because you deserve it! We all deserve to be happy and healthy mentally and otherwise.

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