No matter how often we hear the term “mental health”, especially given the week that’s in it, it can be hard to know exactly what it means. Everyone tells us to mind our mental health, but how can we if we don’t know what it is?
Mindfulness is often spoken of as one of the ways we can mind our mental health, but, again, it’s difficult to say how it helps when we’re fuzzy about what it is that we are trying to mind.
Our confusion is understandable. It’s not easy to define mental health in a simple way that’s acceptable to everyone. The term is quite emotive. It touches what is most personal about us: our deepest feelings and desires, as well as our fantastic capacity to weather emotional storms. But it also reminds us all of our fragility, those times when we feel anything but “together”.
We have all had moments when we've wondered what others would think of us if they could see how we felt inside.
Mental health is about sensitivity to life. We are affected by what happens to us, some of us more than others. Our minds may relax and open when we feel safe and loved; but our hearts can break when we experience loss and crushing defeat.
Positive mental health is what allows us to remain open to life and deal with what comes our way. It does not mean that we are happy all the time. It’s not about being immune to hardship or having cast-iron confidence.
Adversity strikes all of us so it's not a question of if, more a question of when. Mental health is feeling able to cope, to reach out and to acknowledge that this is a rough time.
We know the three basic ingredients of positive mental health are: having a strong sense of self, feeling that you belong and having a reason to live.
Your sense of purpose doesn’t have to warrant a Nobel prize. If you can get up after being worn out and bruised and do what needs to be done like set the fire or get the dinner or walk the dog – that’s enough focus for the day.
You may also have a dream you believe you can make happen and are willing to work towards – even if it takes a while.
When these three elements – identity, belonging and a sense of purpose – are working together, we feel strong. We feel good about ourselves. We walk tall and look the world right in the eye.
And then, right when we’re least expecting it, a violent eruption in our lives throws us into distress and confusion. Suddenly, we are not sure who we are, we may doubt that anyone really loves us and it can be hard to see any future for ourselves. We shrink back inside our shells.
How quickly we recover from these shocks depends on what exactly has happened and how quickly we can reopen those three lifelines. But there is a way back.
And the first step in mindfulness is to stop. Pay attention and be kind to yourself. That’s a monumental job when what we are drawn to is blame and shame. The three lifelines are self-esteem: knowing and believing in my self (identity); knowing my place in this world (belonging); and having something to do that matters to me (purpose).
The national conversation about “minding our mental health” recognises that while life may be full of shocks, coping with life begins with remembering who we are, where we belong and what gives our life meaning.
Positive mental health includes everything we do to nurture and strengthen each of these elements. They are the building blocks of resilience. Sometimes, in order to loosen the heart indentations and scars, we may also need to talk to someone we trust to regain a sense of ourselves.
Mindfulness steadies us and helps us to remember who we are. Sitting quietly in awareness knits together the disparate strands of head and heart, mind and body, past and present.
We remember how far we've come, what we have already survived. We look at ourselves with forgiveness rather than blame, with appreciation rather than disappointment.
With the simple act of breathing in and breathing out, we come home. We relax our fear and we feel our connection with all living things. We no longer ignore how terrifying life can be but we step into the unknown with courage and trust.
There is no magic pill or potion. To draw on mindfulness in tough times, you’ve got to practise it in the good times.
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health