Mental Health vs. Mental illness vs. Mental Well-being: A guide to Mental Maintenance.

Often ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are used interchangeably in a way that they share the same meaning, but they do not. We all have mental health, just like we all have health. Approximately 1 in 4 of us will experience mental ill-health each year. It will affect the way we feel, think, behave, cope and engage in our interpersonal relationships. Mental health does not have an on/off switch, it continues as do we, moving through different phases and stages as our life moves on Good mental health, just like good physical health, is not a given. We have to work at it. Not all of us will experience a mental illness, but each of us fragile, suffering, vulnerable human-beings at times trying to hold it together will at some point, face challenges when it comes to our mental health. Just like we do with our physical health from time to time.

In this Notebook, with our clients and with the Self Space community, when we talk about mental health, we are talking about our mental-wellbeing: our feelings, thoughts, emotions, our ability to deal and cope with change, to solve problems and make decisions, to be flexible in the face of adversity, to communicate our needs clearly, to understand the world around us, and to hold capacity for empathy not only towards others but towards ourselves. How to look after all of this: this is mental maintenance.

Up until now, mental well-being has been thought about as a purely positive state of being, marked by feelings of happiness and a sense of mastery over one’s life. This idea is setting us up for failure. How about we lay down the burden of mastery and let that remain the boring privilege of the divine? Let us shift our focus away from waiting for the wise person at the top of the mountain to come down and share their wisdom – and instead, in our messy and complex world, to step into flexibility and curiosity. Let us take from the wisdom that is waiting for us at ground level inside the challenges each of us face in our daily lives.

We need to make space for new and more inclusive definitions of mental well-being, as free as possible of restrictive and invalidating statements like ‘positive vibes only’, ‘other people have it much worse’ and ‘you should be grateful for what you’ve got’ -, and as close as possible to how we experience life as human beings, which can sometimes be beautiful, and at other times disgusting; sometimes calm, and at other times chaotic and seriously hard to navigate. Not just positive vibes only, all vibes allowed.

Let us engage in mental maintenance in a way that does not just look like a reaction to mental illness, but taking a pro-active striving for mental wellness, all year round.