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Mental Health for Everyone

May is recognized as Mental Health Month, Children’s Mental Health Month, and Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental Health America designated this year’s theme as “Pathways to Wellness”, so it’s fitting to unveil this monthly column focused on Emotional Wellness. What comes to mind when you think of emotional wellness? Wellness isn’t simply the absence of illness or problems; wellness includes any approach, activity, or behavior that leads us towards health and maximizing our potential in relationships, in work, in coping, in being in the world. What does emotional wellness look like? Among other things, it’s the ability to attend to and express our feelings effectively, adapt to change, manage conflict, assume personal responsibility, make decisions, and form healthy relationships.

This all sounds great, right? So what gets in the way of emotional wellness? A combination of genetics, biology, environment, and experience. Experiences ranging from daily stress to trauma can impact our emotional wellness. Existing stigma surrounding mental health also impacts our emotional wellness, by limiting the support available.

As this cartoon playfully but pointedly illustrates, while physical health and illness are often openly talked about, when it comes to mental health, there is still too often, silence. Fortunately, in recent years I’ve noticed an increased interest, willingness and openness among individuals to discuss the importance of attending to mental illness and wellness. From public outcry and discussions following the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, to mandated coverage of mental health services within the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, to television entertainment such as “LA Shrinks” and “In Treatment”, attention to mental healthcare is undoubtedly becoming more acceptable.

So what, exactly, are “mental health issues”? Any thought, feeling, mood or behavior that interferes with our ability to function or cope adequately in our lives. By this definition, we all have “issues” at times and stressors are a strong factor for situational bouts of depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties. As with many things, there is a continuum of mental health and illness. Mental health disorders are not character defects or weakness; rather they are understood to be caused by the interplay of genetic, biological and environmental factors, not unlike heart disease, diabetes, or even migraine headaches. However, just as most physical illnesses are temporary and treatable, so are most mental illnesses, as long as individuals aren’t too stigmatized to seek professional help. Therapist Joyce Marter, LCPC says, “A therapist is like a personal trainer for your mind”. In our ongoing pursuit of wellness, I believe that we all can benefit from therapy. Not so surprising coming from a Therapist, I know!

How can you protect your mental health?

Take care of your physical health.

Give yourself adequate sleep, move your body, eat nutritious foods, drink water. There is a link between physical and mental health.

Start by practicing mindfulness: attention to the present without judgment. Pay attention to and reduce negative self-talk, self-criticism. Notice when you are focusing on the past and future.

Be good to yourself. Make time for self-care: activities, hobbies and people you enjoy.

Utilize available supports: family, friends, your faith, professionals, etc.

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