What is Mental Health?: An Introduction

Mental health is a key facet of our lives and critical to being successful

“Our mental health seriously affects our physical health. So there should be no stigma around mental health, none at all.” — Michelle Obama

Very simply, mental health refers to our mental well-being. It is a combination of our physical, emotional, behavioural, and social states. How we feel about our lives, how we deal with everyday problems, our relationships with people around us, are all dictated by our mental health.

The WHO (World Health Organization) defines mental health as:

“A state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Poor mental health, just like poor physical health may not always show. Basic things like getting out of bed, going to work, and facing normal life situations might be hard for people suffering from poor mental health.

Someone dealing with mental health issues may seem perfectly normal or happy on the outside, but they might be struggling to do their everyday tasks.

Anyone who grew up in Indian society knows that it is a taboo topic. People talk about it in hushed tones. Moreover, people who suffer from related issues are also stereotyped negatively. People start thinking differently about us when they hear that we are experiencing mental health issues.

Mental wellbeing has for long been a very taboo topic in India
Mental wellbeing has for long been a very taboo topic in India
Individuals coping with mental health troubles rarely get attention they deserve

Indian society has for long had a negligent attitude towards mental health. And it’s high time that this changes.

The truth is that just like all human beings suffer from some kind of physical illness or the other at some point in their lives. Similarly, people can also suffer from poor mental wellness at different times in their life. Fortunately, there are increased conversations about our mental state these days. Many Bollywood celebrities have also spoken out about mental health and the importance it deserves, which has helped reduce the taboo around the subject.

Very often and without any real understanding, people may suggest that the person needs to be admitted to an asylum or ‘mental hospital’. Or the reaction could be equally underwhelming; with the suggestion that it’s a ‘passing phase’ and the person has no real reason to be unhappy or sad.

Neither reaction is the right one. And the sad outcome of this is it prevents the person from receiving the right support and care at the right time. We would not tell someone who has a broken leg that it’s not a real problem. Similarly, awareness needs to be generated around mental wellness as well.

Ultimately, the brain too is an organ and it could need support either medical or in the form of counselling or therapy, to recover.

The rise of virtual communication and social media have increased isolation and loneliness for people. People are not connecting with each other in deep, meaningful ways. Instead, youngsters especially, have started comparing their lives with the glamorous pictures they see of celebrities and other friends. We all do this at some point, forgetting that what people post on social media is very rarely real.

Globally and in India, instances of depression, anxiety, and stress are on the rise. The friend we are at a party with, the colleague we work with every day, or someone close in the family could be dealing with it or trying to cope with it.

Right from ordinary people to celebrities, NO ONE is immune to their mental well-being getting disturbed.

Hence, it is important to understand and remember that it is normal for our mental health to suffer at some point in time or the other. What is more important is to ask for help at the right time and also be there for our friends and family when they need help.

Poor mental health is too often confused with mental illnesses or disorders. Let’s understand the difference between the two.

Mental health is a state, and everyone possesses it. Following are the components of mental health:

  • one’s self-image and awareness (how we view ourselves)
  • one’s emotions
  • one’s thoughts and feelings
  • one’s ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties
  • one’s social connections
  • one’s understanding of the world around
Various components of Mental Wellbeing

Mental illness, on the other hand, refers to a clinical condition that can affect one’s emotions, thinking, and behaviour in a major way. Mental disorder or disease can affect anyone irrespective of their age, race, and gender. If one has a mental illness, they will experience dysfunction in personal and professional life and extreme social anxiety.

You may be familiar with some common mental illnesses such as:

  • depression/mania
  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety and panic
  • trauma
  • eating disorders
  • personality disorders
  • addiction to drugs or alcohol

When it comes to physical health, we don’t always make blanket statements like: “I am healthy” or “I am unhealthy.” We may be healthy most of the time. But at some time we may catch the flu or be down with an upset stomach. We may break our arm or leg. We may even contract a serious disease and need to be hospitalized, or we may need surgery for a problem related to our internal organs.

Physical and Mental health are less like On/Off switches, and lie more on a range
Physical and Mental health are less like On/Off switches, and lie more on a range
Physical and Mental health are less like On/Off switches, and lie more on a range

To cut a long story short, we have bodies that may have physical problems. For many problems, we recover on our own. For others, we need some additional support to recover. And then, we learn to live some others long term, but with medication or some external aids. Mental health is EXACTLY the same and lies on a spectrum, just like physical health. So depending on the issue, we may need therapy, counselling, or lifestyle changes. In some more serious cases, we may even need medication and that is fine.

There is a range between which we are medically healthy, and beyond that range we may need some support or assistance.

Given the reality of the complex world we live in today, we are all constantly swinging from left to right as far as our mental balance goes. Feeling upset because of life’s challenges doesn’t mean that we have poor mental health. If there is a death of a close one or a job loss, we are bound to feel sad and grieve.

But after a while, we should be able to bounce back. Being mentally strong simply means that we can recover and move forward after we take time out for recovery. Being mentally weak implies we take longer or need help to progress. And that is perfectly fine too. So being happy or sad are not necessarily indicators of poor mental health.

Building resilience and mental and emotional strength can help us to face difficult situations when they come along.

It’s when the mental health pendulum swings too much to anyone extreme, that we might need professional guidance to come back to the safe zone. When we delay the necessary steps to look for professional support that is when the situation gets worse. Just like we don’t wait for two or three days of high fever before we go to a doctor, in the same way, we should be paying attention to our mental health and seek help as and when the need arises.

Looking after oneself in a holistic manner would mean being clued into how we are doing both physically and mentally.

The Mental Health Pendulum

If we wish to have a happy, productive and meaningful life, then keeping ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy are equally important. We can start by taking some small but positive steps from today.

Remember: Mental health is not a destination but a process. It’s about how we drive, not where we are going.

Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only. Lokyatha has observed best effort due diligence and all health related content is reviewed by a trained professional before publishing. However, this should not and can not replace personalized medical help. Please refer to a professional in all cases of need.

Lokyatha is an education focused initiative to enable young adults to live better, more fruitful lives by delivering real world life skills.