Google the word mental health and you’ll find numerous organisations and groups promoting the importance of mental health, but how it is described and the context in which it is discussed can vary significantly. We think understanding the difference between mental health and wellbeing and mental illness is important as this is one area where definitions can become blurred and language may disempower people by putting them in a box.
Mental health and wellbeing encompasses all aspects of our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, so it affects how we feel, think and interact with the world around us. A good definition which encapsulates this is summarised by the World Health Organisation (2007) – a state of wellbeing in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. In summary we think that having good mental health is the ability to deal with life’s challenges and changes, maintaining positive relationships, enjoying life and getting the balance right.
Mental illness on the other hand is a health problem that affects how we think, behave and interact therefore significantly affecting our mental health and wellbeing. It is diagnosed according to standardised criteria. Some of the major types of mental illnesses are anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar, personality disorders, and depression. However, what if I was in a period in my life where things were not so great, I’m not coping, and the challenges and changes are starting to become overwhelming? Does this mean I have a mental illness? I think not.
I say this because sometimes it seems in society, we are almost not allowed to feel pain, show weakness, or not cope as this may be interpreted as there being something wrong with us. Unfortunately, the system provides the word depression as an answer for a whole range of situational stressors which occur in society and need to be discussed. We need to normalise a person’s response during a difficult or abnormal life event and a phrase we coin for times like this is being in a state of Situational Distress.
There are numerous life challenges that come our way that can cause us distress such as separation, illness, injury, trauma, financial worries, grief, adolescence, fatherhood, midlife, change of job, redundancy and transition into retirement. When it comes to our mental health and wellbeing it’s important to remember none of us are exempt from hard knocks! Just as we’re given the vulnerability to experience tragedy, we’re given the human resources to heal and deal with it. As T. Green (2008) states “We don’t get memory erasures, but we’re given stamina, resilience and fortitude to see the world hasn’t stopped.”
What can we do to assist and manage situational distress and get our mental health and wellbeing back into balance?
- Identify our mates (build a support network of people we feel safe to confide in i.e. peer, partner, mentor);
- Program time out from work and normalize the problem;
- Maintain social opportunities, take time to laugh with others;
- Take a break, a holiday, go fishing, try something different, explore our passions and interest;
- Exercise, keep active and maintain a healthy diet (this includes reducing alcohol use);
- Make sure we are getting enough sleep;
- Be willing to talk to the appropriate people i.e. family, mates, work colleagues or a professional (accountant, lawyer, psychologist, helpline or GP).
Maintaining a balance and aiming for positive mental health and wellbeing is something we all need to do, this includes acknowledging that we are all susceptible to the stressors of life. Our health and wellbeing are our responsibility, be proactive, address our distress early and don’t let it get out of hand.
By The Regional Men’s Health Initiative