On Psych Central’s homepage, you’ve likely seen the tagline: “Your mental health is as important as your physical health.” But what does mental health really mean? What does it entail? And why is it so pivotal — so much so that it’s on par with our physical health?
These are the questions I posed to clinicians. Because, in our society, there’s a strong emphasis on taking care of our bodies — eat nutrient-rich foods, exercise — and yet not so much on taking care of our mental health. Sure, we see articles with self-help tips. But I’m not sure that many of us really consider our mental health day to day. I’m not sure that we give it the same attention and energy, if any.
What is Mental Health — Really?
“Mental health encompasses our psychological, emotional, mental and social well-being,” said Cori Dixon-Fyle, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Thriving Path, LLC, a private counseling practice in Chicago, Ill.
“Our mental health helps lay the groundwork for how we live in this world.” This includes everything from how we cope with daily stressors to how we relate to others, she said.
Aaron Karmin, a clinical professional counselor at Urban Balance, holds a similar stance: “When we are mentally healthy we are able to form positive relationships and manage life’s challenges.”
He thinks of mental health as a skill, similar to playing sports, doing your job and cooking. For instance, “if you played sports, you were coached in the basics and practiced them until they became rote. At work, you were shown how to perform tasks, then got better and better as you repeated the process.”
Therapist Melissa A. Frey, LCSW, views mental health as “an individual’s personal sense of well-being.” Which is influenced by thought, emotion, behavior, social environment, genetics, brain physiology and lifestyle.
Psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, was taught that “mental health is the ability to ‘feel and deal’” — at its most basic level. “A mentally healthy person is able to access and express a broad range of emotions, while using clear thoughts and controlled behaviors to ‘deal’ with feelings, relationships and any obstacles that may arise.”
Why is Mental Health So Vital?
“I believe mental and physical health are deeply intertwined,” Howes said. If we don’t care for one, the other will suffer. “For example, if I deprive myself of sleep I will under-perform at my job, which will give me anxiety about financial stability and keep me up late at night.”
In another example, Frey noted that stress may trigger sadness and anxiety, which affect our bodies physically. We might experience fatigue, headaches and digestive problems. Plus, untreated ongoing stress can lead to serious health concerns, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, she said.
“We actually endure emotional injuries far more often than physical injuries,” Dixon-Fyle said. Rejection. Failure. Perfectionism. Loneliness. Grief. These are just some of the many emotional injuries we might experience. “Just as a broken foot will worsen if you do not treat it, emotional injuries and mental health injuries can get worse if we ignore them.”
“Our mental health needs are just as important as our physical health to keep our bodies healthy as a whole,” Frey said.
Why Do We Neglect Our Mental Health?
One reason we neglect our mental health is the cultural myth that being overly productive and exhausted equal success, said Dixon-Fyle. Which leaves little time to tend to our mental health. “We try to be so efficient and productive by over-scheduling our lives that we miss out on opportunities for enjoyable, meaningful and necessary rest and play time—for both adults and children.”
In the book The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience, Sergio Pellis notes that rest and play make our brains more agile and resilient—and both can stave off anxiety, stress and depression, too, she said.
There’s also “social pressure to ‘have it all together’ or at least appear that we do,” Howes said. Yet, interestingly, there are plenty of socially-supported methods to help us avoid, numb or distract ourselves from our mental and emotional issues, he said. For instance, you can drink, play videogames, watch too much TV, scroll endlessly on social media and stay busy, busy, busy.
And there’s the all-too familiar stigma of seeing a therapist. Which, in reality, is ridiculous because each of us needs and benefits from help from time to time. “[I]t’s a sign of strength and intelligence to know when to seek support. Someone who has skills and the right tools, is an asset, not a liability,” said Karmin, who holds an advanced certification in stress management and penned the book Anger Management Workbook for Men: Take Control of Your Anger and Master Your Emotions.
Counseling provides individuals with new tools to address their specific concerns. This is similar to seeing a dentist when you have a tooth ache or a mechanic when your car breaks down, he said. “We get professional support for all kinds of problems and mental health is no different.”
But you don’t need to wait for a crisis to seek professional help. Therapy is an effective preventative tool. Howes shared this example: Your kids will be graduating and moving out in several years. You think this might become a problem, triggering old issues around abandonment. You seek therapy for a deeper understanding and helpful tools before the problem balloons.
Howes is a big believer in mental health checkups. “We have yearly physicals and see the dentist every 6 months — at least we’re supposed to — but do we have occasional checkups with a mental health professional?” At his practice in Pasadena, Calif., he conducts these assessments.
“Denial and avoidance are disempowering. But a clear, honest assessment is empowering,” Howes said. “Just think of how much individual and relationship suffering would be curtailed if we all had a mental health checkup every couple of years.” If you’re struggling or anticipate a concern in the future, consider scheduling several sessions with a psychotherapist in your city. After all, your mental health is vital.