Mental health awareness seems to be constantly growing. While there’s still a long way to go, mental health is now regularly discussed on social media, in TV and films, celeb interviews, and even schools and workplaces.
Maybe you’ve had conversations about mental health with your family, colleagues, or friends. Maybe you live with a mental health condition yourself. But what actually is it?
Perhaps that sounds like an obvious question. We all know what mental health is, right? But if I’m being honest, mental health is such a huge umbrella term for so many different illnesses that I’ve almost lost touch with its true definition. In some ways, the phrase ‘mental health’ just seems so vague. Too detached.
Collin’s Dictionary defines mental health as: “the general condition of a person’s mind”. But what does that really mean? After all, the mind is such an abstract concept. You can’t look at it. You can’t touch it. And maybe that’s why many people who aren’t mentally ill themselves don’t truly understand the reality of living with it. It’s just a concept to them – an alien concept that seems to be everywhere, yet invisible at the same time.
If you try to picture what mental health looks like, chances are you’ll head straight towards a stereotype. Perhaps you picture a bed-stricken woman, curled up in her unwashed duvet, with the curtains closed and no desire to get up and do anything for days. And yes, there are people like this, but it’s certainly not the only ‘way’ to be mentally ill either.
Statistically, mental health seems to be a more ‘female’ problem. The Mental Health Foundation state that around 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men are living with mental health problems in England. But then again, this might not be accurate. Societal and cultural factors, like toxic masculinity, can make men less likely to speak up about their mental health issues. Often, we view emotions as a ‘female problem’ and consider it unmasculine for guys to talk about their feelings. These toxic stereotypes can stop men from opening up about their mental health, and this limits the help they can get. So, while mental health issues are reportedly much higher in women, potentially there could be just as many men suffering in silence.
On top of this, men are more likely to commit suicide. They’re also nearly three times more likely to have problems with alcohol abuse, and 87% of rough sleepers are male. Then there’s male-orientated careers, such as being in the armed forces, which are heavily intertwined with mental health issues like PTSD.
That’s not to say that many women don’t go through mentally damaging experiences too, which are just as valid. For instance, women often develop mental health issues during and after pregnancy, like postnatal depression. Women are also more likely to experience sexual assault and domestic abuse, which can cause psychological problems. And then there are other variables to consider such as race, sexuality, economic status, being trans vs cisgender, which can all play a part in your chances of developing mental health issues.
The point is, mental health is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Pretty far from it, actually. There isn’t a right or a wrong way to be mentally ill, which makes it a difficult thing to quickly and easily define. We’re all different, so why would we expect everyone to react the same way?
You can be depressed but still manage to keep up a stressful, busy job. You can also be depressed and be signed off work for months, even years. You can have anxiety and regularly participate in stand-up comedy in front of huge crowds. You can also have anxiety and avoid being around lots of people. You can have OCD and have a messy room. You can also have OCD and have a beautifully pristine house with alphabetically ordered books and perfectly aligned kitchen utensils. The list goes on.
I guess this can be both reassuring and overwhelming. It’s good to know that your experience with mental health isn’t any less valid than anyone else’s. But it can also be intimidating to view mental health as this vast, limitless thing – it can make it feel harder to confront.
But maybe there’s another way of looking at it. In fact, this is only half of the story. We have to remember that everybody has mental health. Some people have good mental health and some people have bad mental health. I suppose, the problem really is that I tend to view ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ as the same thing, when that’s not quite the case.
I tend to think of mental health as this big, scary monster, but mental health isn’t just the bad stuff. It’s also about reflection, compassion, and self care. Mental health is going to therapy, or talking to a friend. It’s having a good night’s sleep and enjoying hobbies. It’s finding coping mechanisms and practising mindfulness. It’s treating a bad mental health day like any other sick day, because your mental wellbeing is just as important as your physical wellbeing.
Mental health isn’t static – it’s fluid. Rather than viewing it as a one-way downward spiral, I guess it’s more of a spectrum. One day you might be further along the spectrum than another, but you’re still somewhere on it, nevertheless. Things can change, and nothing is set in stone. Maybe, to me, that’s what mental health is really all about: things can be hard, but they can always get better.
If you are struggling with mental health problems, talk to a family member, a friend, or your GP. There’s a lot of information available at Mind.org about seeking help and support, and you can also find a range of helplines available here.