Our mental health is central to our existence as human beings. Our mental capacity and functioning is why we are different from other living things. Our mental system is the bedrock of our functioning as humans. The organ of our mental functioning is the brain, and the brain is a biological organ just like all other organs in the body. Mental health like other physical health, is not the absence of disease or illness or infirmity.
Being mentally healthy does not just mean you do not have a mental disorder or illness. It means despite the factors around you, whether negative or positive you can adapt, thrive, achieve your potential, be productive, participate meaningfully, engage positively in your relationships with family, friends, colleagues and in any setting; be it academics, workplace or in any other area of functioning. What these mean is that when we experience stress from the vicissitudes of life, which is part of life, those feelings will not endure or devolve into incapacitating states.
Mental and physical health implies fitness rather than freedom from disease. Consider Mr A and Mr B who are both 50 years old. Mr A has diabetes, but with well-controlled blood sugar levels while Mr B does not have diabetes or any other illness. This does not mean that Mr B is healthier than Mr A. Mr A with a diagnosis of diabetes and well-controlled blood sugar levels might be physically healthier and fit than Mr B.
In the same vein, having no mental illness like schizophrenia or depression or bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis does not imply you are enjoying good optimum mental health. Someone receiving treatment for anxiety disorder may be more mentally healthy and productive than one who is free of any mental disorder.
Health and illness exists on the continuum. They are not polar opposites. They are also dynamic and can change with circumstances. One can have a fair or good or excellent mental health just as one can experience mild or moderate or severe hypertension. A person on the higher level point on the continuum of health is definitely better than the person on the lower level. A higher degree of health implies better performance, better strength, better resistance to disease and illness. It is like two people with genuine scores of 60 and 90 respectively in a mathematics exam. Although, they both passed, the one with the higher score will certainly do better on tasks that involve numbers or calculations. The one with 60 can still do a lot to perform better and score higher next time. The meaning of this is that even though you are healthy you can still do a lot to promote your health.
Our mental health is very important and critical for success and good life. When you promote your mental health, you have more positive emotions, adapt to changes better, cope with adversity better, have good relationships, engage in more positive and rational thinking, which will translate to better decision making, better problem-solving capacity and making the most of your potential. Also, research has shown that positive mental health is associated with more positive outcomes like reduce chances of morbidity that is illness, better immune system which implies better resistance to illnesses including mental illnesses. So, mental health is also critical for the overall health of man.
Many factors determine the state of our mental health – how healthy we are mentally. These are factors within us and factors outside of us, that is, the environment. The brain interfaces with the environment. What you see, hear, smell, taste, experience are translated into neuronal messages by the brain. The brain interprets these messages and produces the responses. If you are in any situation, your brain interfaces, perceives and interprets the situation to you.
Different responses are then possible depending on the interpretation.
The brain is an organ whose working can be modified by the environment. It is the organ that gives us the capacity to cope and thrive in different negative situations. If you are in a very cold environment the brain senses it, and will direct other systems in the body to take the necessary action, so as to maintain equilibrium. The same thing happens when you experience something that has the potential to make you anxious or worried; your emotional and behavioral response to this situation will depend on how your brain interprets it. While we may not have so much control over everything that happens around us, we have control over how our brain responds to these things, so, even when there is a potential stress or in the environment, you may not even perceive that factor as a stress or depending on the workings of your brain.
So, how do we keep this organ in the best possible state to serve us well? How do we take charge of the factors that can heavily influence our mental functioning and health? How do we develop resilience – which is having a mental functioning that is able to bounce back quickly in adversity or that is able to adapt to change without breaking and remaining productive?
How do we promote and sustain our mental health? To be continued in Part II
-By Dr. (Mrs) Aina Solomon- Oyekanmi