What Is Mental Health?
So efficient and hushed are our brains in their day-to-day operations, we are apt to miss what an extraordinary and complicated achievement it is to feel mentally well. A mind in a healthy state is, in the background, continually performing a near-miraculous set of manoeuvres that underpin our moods of clear-sightedness and purpose.
To appreciate what mental health might be (and therefore what its opposite involves), we might take a moment to consider some of what will be going on in the folds of an optimally-functioning mind:
First and foremost, a healthy mind is an editing mind, an organ that manages to sieve, from thousands of stray, dramatic, disconcerting or horrifying thoughts, those particular ideas and sensations that actively need to be entertained in order for us to direct our lives effectively.
Partly, this means keeping at bay punitive and critical judgements that might want to tell us repeatedly how disgraceful and appalling we are – long after harshness has ceased to serve any useful purpose. When we are interviewing for a new job or taking someone on a date, a healthy mind doesn’t force us to listen to inner voices that insist on our unworthiness. It allows us to talk to ourselves as we would to a friend.
At the same time, a healthy mind resists the pull of unfair comparisons. It doesn’t constantly allow the achievements and successes of others to throw us off course and reduce us to a state of bitter inadequacy. It doesn’t torture us by continually comparing our condition to that of people who have, in reality, had very different upbringings and trajectories through life. A well-functioning mind recognises the futility and cruelty of constantly finding fault with its own nature.
Along the way, a healthy mind keeps a judicious grip on the faucet of fear. It knows that, in theory, there is an endless number of things that we could worry about: a blood vessel might fail, a scandal might erupt, the plane’s engines could sheer from their wings…But it has a good sense of the distinction between what could conceivably happen and what is in fact likely to happen – and it is able to leave us in peace as regards the wilder eventualities of fate, confident that awful things will either not unfold or could be dealt with ably enough if ever they did so. A healthy mind avoids catastrophic imaginings: it knows that there are broad and stable stone steps, not a steep and slippery incline, between itself and disaster.
A healthy mind has compartments with heavy doors that shut securely. It can compartmentalise where it needs to. Not all thoughts belong at all moments. While talking to a grandmother, the mind prevents the emergence of images of last night’s erotic fantasies; while looking after a child, it can repress its more cynical and misanthropic insights. Aberrant thoughts about jumping on a train line or harming oneself with a sharp knife can remain brief peculiar flashes rather than repetitive fixations. A healthy mind has mastered the techniques of censorship.
A healthy mind can quieten its own buzzing preoccupations in order, at times, to focus on the world beyond itself. It can be present and engaged with what and who is immediately around. Not everything it could feel has to be felt at every moment. It can be a good listener.
A healthy mind combines an appropriate suspicion of certain people with a fundamental trust in humanity. It can take an intelligent risk with a stranger. It doesn’t extrapolate from life’s worst moments in order to destroy the possibility of anything good emerging with a new acquaintance.
A healthy mind knows how to hope; it identifies and then hangs on tenaciously to a few reasons to keep going. Grounds for despair, anger and sadness are, of course, all around. But the healthy mind knows how to bracket negativity in the name of endurance. It clings to evidence of what is still beautiful and kind. It remembers to appreciate; it can – despite everything – still look forward to a hot bath, some dried fruit or dark chocolate, a chat with a friend, or a satisfying day of work. It refuses to let itself be silenced by all the many sensible arguments in favour of rage and despondency.
Outlining some of the features of a healthy mind helps us to identify what can go awry when we fall ill. We should acknowledge the extent to which mental illness is ultimately as common, and as essentially unshameful, as its bodily counterpart. True mental health involves a frank acceptance of how much ill health there will have to be in even the most ostensibly competent and meaningful life. And we should be no more reluctant to seek help than we are when we develop a chest infection or a sore knee – and should consider ourselves no less worthy of love and sympathy.