None of us possesses perfect mental health, but we strive, to the best of our abilities, to weather the emotional and psychological storms that are inevitable in life. Mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness. It is the presence of a feeling of well-being derived from the confidence that we can cope with changes and challenges. Mental health is about feeling satisfied with our lives and experiencing positive, meaningful connections with others.
Most of us know that good emotional health is as important as good physical health; in fact, research tells us that one significantly affects the other. An article on the University of California Human Resources website quotes Dorothy Cantor, Psy.D., former president of the American Psychological Association.
"We've been told for so long to get physical checkups, but taking care of our emotional well-being has been sorely overlooked. We are whole people - whole in the sense that our minds and bodies are connected. When you have good mental health, you are able to experience feelings and not be overwhelmed by them. That doesn't mean you can never be angry or sad. It means finding a balance and expressing those feelings appropriately."
Helpguide.org offers several ways to improve mental health:
Build resilience. Let yourself experience strong emotions, but realize that you may need to step away from them at times in order to continue functioning. Step forward and take action to deal with problems, but also step back when needed to rest and re-energize yourself.
Improve physical health. Educate yourself about good nutrition and practice it. Get enough sleep - most people need seven to eight hours per night to function optimally. Get a dose of sunlight every day. Exercise to relieve stress and lift your mood.
Focus on doing things that positively impact others. Self absorption is deadly to mental health. Being valued for your talents and contributions will build self-esteem.
Practice self-discipline. You don't have to have everything you want right now and there are some things you may want that will never be good for you. Practicing self-discipline can help overcome despair, helplessness and other negative thoughts.
Learn or discover new things. Think of it as intellectual candy. Take a class, learn a new skill, join a book club, visit a museum or travel someplace you've never been. Mix it up to avoid stagnancy.
Connect with others. Get out from behind your TV or computer - they will never express an interest in you or offer a reassuring touch. Healthy communication requires direct contact, so don't neglect real-world relationships in favor of virtual interactions.
Make time for contemplation and appreciation. Prayer and meditation are invaluable to mental and physical health.
Face your emotions head on. Don't ignore signals that something is distressing you. Write down in a journal what is bothering you or talk to a trusted friend or family member. Stuffed emotions gather steam, get into the driver's seat and usually come out at the wrong time and are directed toward the wrong person.
The diminishment of mental health brings inestimable heartache to millions of Americans. Because mental disorders are so common, affecting 25 percent of adults and 10 percent of children, it is not surprising that they are a leading cause of disability. In addition to destroying one's quality of life, untreated mental illness often leads to family conflict, poverty and homelessness, legal difficulties, social isolation, physical ailments and suicide.
The best treatments for mental illness today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of treated individuals experience a significant reduction of symptoms and can attain a satisfactory measure of achievement. It is critical to have those services available to people who want and need mental health treatment instead of allowing treatable illnesses to rage out of control.
For the first time in Washington County we are not able to offer a sliding fee scale for treatment services, leaving many with no access to life-saving treatment. Compared to five years ago, we have 75 percent less funds that allow us to help the working class, those individuals without Medicaid, adequate insurance or independent wealth.
This is an alarming public health crisis. People do recover - treatment works, but only if it is obtainable.
Miriam Keith is consumer support coordinator of the Washington County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Board. Mental Health Matters appears on the Opinion page on the first Saturday of each month.