What Is Mental Health? What Is Mental Health Awareness?

What Is Mental Health? What Is Mental Health Awareness?

I get these questions often enough to think introspectively about them on a regular basis. I think about how the answers have changed over time the more we learn about what humans need to be healthy and thrive in our changing world. Recently, I went online to see what other people and places were saying about mental health and mental health awareness. I was both pleased at the progress and concerned about the continued that we’re still missing the mark.

What is mental health? Is it the absence of mental illness? Is it being positive and happy most of the time? Is it never feeling a sense of dread about anything? Is it looking forward to each responsibility? The answer to each of these questions is, “No, not really.”  Like pretty much most things, mental health lives on a spectrum. Here is a list that most mental-health professionals agreed encapsulates how mental health looks and feels:

  • The recognition of one’s potential capabilities
  • A sense of control and self-direction
  • Skillful management of the stresses of life through resilience and healthy resources
  • Positive gender identity
  • Sense of humor
  • Positive cultural identity
  • Regular exercise and consumption of nutrient-rich foods
  • Emotional awareness, coping, problem-solving
  • The ability to balance a productive workflow with rest and play
  • The ability to make meaningful contributions to one’s communities
  • Connection with one’s sense of purpose
  • Connection with one’s self-worth
  • The ability to connect in a meaningful way with others
  • The ability to speak and behave from a place of competence
  • Self-care
  • Holding realistic beliefs
  • Holding healthy boundaries
  • The ability to learn
  • the ability to cope with change and uncertainty
  • The ability to ask for and be receptive to help and support

*Our potential for mental health has biological and inherited components, but the most profound component is environmental. You might imagine how poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny/sexism, classism, ableism, lack of education, abuse, violence, trauma, chronic high stress impacts our mental health, especially as it occurs intergenerationally.

What is mental health awareness and what does it look like?

  1. Being curious about someone’s behavior or response to something rather than reactive or judgmental.
  2. Understanding and acknowledging our own privilege and using it to amplify others’ (more marginalized) voices.
  3. Treating one another with dignity and respect not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but because Plato was right- “…everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
  4. Tapping into your humanity and demonstrating support. Often asking “What can I/we do to support you?” is a helpful opening.
  5. Understanding that people are complex with variation in capabilities, skills, blindspots, shortcomings, and imperfections. Someone can be an effective leader, creative, organized, and depressed or bipolar or suffer from addiction.
  6. Understanding the role that our Fight, Flight, or Freeze mechanism plays in our lives
  7. Understanding our innate Tend and Befriend as an internal resource
  8. Optimal Mental Health helps our professional and personal communities operate at their highest potential.
  9. A dip in Mental Health is an indication that some adjustment is needed either with the person, the environment, or both; these changes can be temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent.
  10. Educating ourselves about mental health parity and our state laws surrounding parity requirements.
  11. Understanding that willpower is not enough to manage sypmtoms of mental illness.

Use this information in good health, mental and otherwise.


Love and Be Loved,

1 Tip to Stop Ignoring Your Pain

1 Tip to Stop Ignoring Your Pain

Pain is inevitable. If you’re alive, you feel pain. I write a lot about techniques and skills we can engage to alleviate our pain and suffering. There are so many options available to us, and I like to spread the word about protocols I’ve found useful. When we’re in emotional, physical, or spiritual pain, sometimes we need to apply a technique or change positions or take a medication or seek support to help ease some of our burdens.

And sometimes we need to sit with it.

This is often confusing to us because of our cultural messaging about pain. It’s categorized as “bad” and in need of immediate amelioration. It is our adversary. The way we deal with pain is to either totally stigmatize it and think we must be bad humans if we’re experiencing it or to completely normalize it and search for someone or something to help us keep ourselves from feeling it. We think “I’m in pain. I must be bad,” or “I’m in pain and I can’t handle it.” If we are in pain, we’re encouraged to throw everything we’ve got in our tool kits at it and never look back. Take a pill; take ten pills; take a vacation; move; buy something; buy everything; get rid of everything you own and live a monastic, minimal life; get a divorce; get married; do something; do anything; produce any external result.

There is a time for acting, for taking steps, for making major life changes and there is a time for inaction, for sitting with the information we’re receiving from our pain or discomfort. “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

All over the internet, in magazines, in self-help books, at workshops we can find myriad strategies for managing and relieving pain. Everywhere we look we see titles reading, “5 Quick Tips for Relieving Anxiety” and “6 Ways to Getting Over It.” I contribute to this, too! I write about tips and sometimes use catchy titles in hopes of drawing attention to tools I’ve found useful both personally and clinically. It’s great to have so many options, and it’s proficient to apply techniques to feeling better. But the answer isn’t always to do something.

It’s important that we face our pain, see it, and pay attention to it. It is important that we hear what our pain is telling us. Pain is useful. It communicates perceived danger, wounding, and injury. It contains essential information about our immediate and unmet needs.

Pain is always trying to tell us something, and it will never get its need met if we don’t figure out what it’s telling us. If it doesn’t get its need met, it will keep gnawing at us in bigger and louder (and often more uncomfortable) ways. Pain understands that a closed mouth doesn’t get fed. So, it opens its mouth and talks to us anyway it knows how. If that doesn’t work, it raises the volume of its voice and continues to raise it until we hear what it’s saying and investigate. If we treat our pain with respect, dignity, and curiosity, we will begin to understand what it needs from us. The more we understand our pain, the less afraid of it we will be and to sit with it will feel more tolerable. Eventually, our relationship to pain will change.

There are two irrefutable truths about pain: 1) We will always experience it and 2) It will always hurt. We will always experience pain because we are living beings and all living beings experience some form of pain. It will always hurt because that is the most effective way of getting our attention.

As we learn to sit with our pain we will begin to notice that our reactions to much of our pain stimuli will change from “Oh my god, I’m going to die,” to “Oh my god, I feel like I’m going to die,” and “This really sucks but let’s see what the hell is happening here,” and “Damn, I’m in so much pain. Let’s see what this pain wants or needs from me,” and so on.

If you’d like to try this on your own, I recommend experimenting with something more surface-level at first. Try sitting with a minor irritation like an itch or the frustration of waiting for a website page to load. With more substantial pain, it is wise to start our inquiry into our pain with the accompaniment and guidance of a skilled practitioner. A lot can come up, and we can become very overwhelmed very quickly. That’s kind of the thing about pain, isn’t it? Sitting with it is, well, painful.


Love and Be Loved,

(Side note: I am right there with you. I also don’t like pain and still find myself avoiding it or ignoring it. No one is exempt from this process.)