May 2, 2016, 9:34 p.m.
We hear the statistics: one in five people have a mental illness but what does that say about the mental well-being of the other four?Mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. It’s a state of well-being. Mental health is something we all can benefit from working towards.
It is entirely possible to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, anxiety disorder, or other mental illness and be coping well in your life, even flourishing. Flourishing means feeling good and functioning well. It is equally possible to be free of a mental illness and be struggling to feel well.
Sociologist and psychologist Corey Keyes talks about mental health as a continuum. His research highlights the roles that emotional, psychological, and social health each play in overall mental well-being.
Keyes explains that emotional health includes feelings of satisfaction and happiness, and the ability to feel positive feelings about life. He describes psychological health as good self-esteem, trusting relationships with others, and a desire to develop and grow as person. Social health involves a sense of belonging and acceptance in one’s community, and a sense of being a contributing member of society. Someone who is struggling with a mental illness can improve their mental well-being by enhancing these three areas in their life. While that individual may need medication or therapy to manage their illness, it does not have to prevent them from flourishing in other ways.
On the flip side, an individual who seems to be free of mental illness but does little to care for their mental health may begin to languish, which is another term from Keyes’ research. Someone who is languishing may be lacking a sense of purpose in their life, the ability to influence their own environment, and a lack of social connections or sense of belonging.
In the Manitoba-based Provincial Eating Disorder Prevention and Recovery Program, a community based program, we focus on reducing eating disorder behaviours and thoughts while simultaneously building on this idea of pursuing wellness. Eating disorder recovery is not measured by a number on the scale, but rather a reduction of eating disorder behaviours and thoughts and an increase in quality of life. While we believe in full recovery and strive for this with our clients, we also recognize that some people may need to manage aspects of their eating disorder for life. Yet these same people leave our program accepting themselves, experiencing a sense of purpose in their lives, an increase in healthy social connections, and a stable sense of their value and worth.
Mental health is for everyone, and there are ways that each of us, regardless of our mental illness status can take steps to support our well-being and make us more likely to flourish. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand promotes these five strategies for promoting one’s own mental wellness: Connect, Give, Take Notice, Keep Learning, Be Active.
What might this look like?
· Connect: Develop social connections at work, school, and in the community. Spend time and effort developing relationships.
· Give: Volunteer, do something nice for someone else; discover what gifts you have to offer.
· Take notice: Be curious and be mindful; notice the good in the world around you.
· Keep learning: Embrace new experiences, revisit an old interest. In our eating disorder work we talk about this as “taking your life off hold” and encourage people to gradually replace the effort that the eating disorder takes with new passions and interests.
· Be active: get outside, practice joyful movement, and as the New Zealander’s say “move your mood”.
Mental health, like physical health, is something we all need to work at protecting and caring for throughout our lives. This year for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Mental Health Week (#GetLoud) – why not take some preventative steps to help maintain wellness in addition to seeking treatment for any illness that may come your way.
Keyes, C.L.M. (2002, June). The Mental Health Continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43(2), 207-222.
Lisa Naylor is a counsellor in the community-based eating disorder prevention and treatment program at Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Follow Lisa on Twitter.
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