Positive mental health and mental wellbeing are often used synonymously. Wellbeing is more than just happiness. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.
What indicates that we are in good mental health? It starts with understanding and accepting ourselves the way we are. Only this can pave the way for realizing what we are capable of and improving to reach that potential. Mental wellbeing does not imply that one is positive and happy all the time. It means being resilient; having the ability to bounce back and stand up each time one faces a setback in life.
Mental wellbeing cannot be achieved in isolation. Our interpersonal interaction influences wellbeing as much as it relates to positive feelings about ourself. It is important to acknowledge ourself and the role that significant others play in us staying healthy mentally, as well as physically. This dignity that we accord to ourself and receive in return is crucial to mental wellbeing.
A severe and chronic mental illness can impose limitations on one’s lifestyle. Mental wellbeing also means acknowledging and overcoming such challenges with one’s dignity intact. The following case illustrates this.
Sriram, 52, has had a severe form of schizophrenia for twenty-five years. His initial symptoms appeared when he was pursuing his doctorate in Chemical Engineering in the USA. Suspicion and voices were constantly commenting on his actions and threatening him and as a result, crippling his movements. Unable to bear this, he returned to India, totally dysfunctional and housebound. After initiating psychiatric treatment and continuing with it, he showed a gradual and steady improvement, and started to put his life together. He failed to get a suitable job in the industry, but found a job as a lecturer in an engineering college. He got married. He slowly began to get his self-confidence and dignity back, with constant support from his wife and family. He is still on medication and has occasional flashes of symptoms that last a brief period, but today he is able to walk with his head held high, having persisted and conquered a devastating illness.
After being diagnosed with a severe mental disorder, Sriram identified and managed the problem with professional help. But even in the absence of severe issues, we need to take care of our mental health. Often, when caught up in the daily grind, we lose touch with our inner self and do not stop to think about ourselves – it could be simple things like what makes us happy, sad or angry, what lifts us up. Before we know it, our stresses and strains take over and take a toll on our physical health. Unfortunately, we are tuned to sit up and take notice only when our physical wellbeing is compromised. Most often, we ignore the warning signs of mental ill health, to our own peril.
There are warning signs that we need to notice. These are: an increasing sense of unhappiness and discontent with ourself or things around us, feeling negative and diffident, not deriving a sense of enjoyment, wanting to disengage or isolate ourself from people and events around us, feeling unduly anxious or panicky without any ostensible reason, to name a few.
How do we ensure that we stay mentally well?
Dr S Kalayanasundram is a Bangalore based psychiatrist and the CEO of The Richmond Fellowship Society (India).