As more Americans warm to the value of preventative health care for physical health, it’s a good time to address how prevention benefits mental health as well. In a report published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers concluded that investments in “mental health promotion and protection” not only complements the treatment (e.g. therapy, counseling, etc.) of mental illness when it arises, but these investments can reduce the risk of mental illness in the first place.
When speaking in broad terms, people sometimes use “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably, as in “Raising awareness about mental health/illness” or “Mental illness/health issues.” But they’re not the same. Mental health, like physical health, speaks to an overall level of strength, well-being, balance and resilience. Mental and physical illnesses are specific problems that arise, which they’re more likely to do when a person is less healthy to begin with. For example: if a person eats poorly and doesn’t exercise, most wouldn’t call them “healthy,” even before they develop heart disease (which they are more likely to do).
So what does a mentally healthy life look like? Much talk lately has centered on the notion of resilience: the ability to deal with and live through difficult experiences without acquiring long-term psychological baggage; this is, arguably, one of the strongest indicators of mental health. The American Journal of Public Health article referenced above referred to the need for “positive mental health” (emphasis ours), which suggests values such as higher self-esteem, social support, and happiness in general. And recently, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has documented what he describes as an essential human need for play time: “Play is an integral part of life and may make a life worth living,” he said. How exactly we foster greater mental health in our communities is a topic of much debate and brainstorming, but it’s clear that the goal is a worthy one.
© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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