Shifting Perspectives: Mental Health as Wellness and not Illness

This article was published in The Hindu In School epaper on 19th November, 2021

“Mental health” has become a buzzword over the past year. What comes to your mind when you hear of the word “mental health”? Take a second to think about it.

Chances are that you are thinking of depression or some kind of mental illness. You would not be alone in this. But what if there is more to “mental health” than just illness? 

The World Health Organization defines health as “the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”. There can be two learnings from this definition – i) Mental well-being is a contributing factor to the overall concept of health. ii) Emphasis has also been placed on health being much more than just the absence of illness.

Let us explore what this means. Have you ever felt “down” or tired on some days, unable to play or study?  And on some days very energetic and active when you were able to finish all your work quickly? These days may have even occurred in quick succession, one after the other. You could imagine health to be like a line or a spectrum then. On one side there is the “not well” and as you slowly move up the line, there is the “well”. Somedays you are on the “not well” part of the line and on others, you are on the “well” part of the line. On most days, you are somewhere in between.

So what causes us to be on either side of the line or somewhere in between? You may not have any reason or explanation for it.  Or maybe you are able to pinpoint something specific that happened. Perhaps you did not do well on an exam. Maybe you fought with a family member. Maybe you spilled hot tea on yourself in the morning. You could have even had some of these “down” days in the past year while you were frustrated with online learning and staying at home.

There then seems to be a connection between what happens in our environment and how we feel as a result of it. Feeling mentally unhealthy on specific days or for prolonged periods of time is often caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. It is safe to say that it does not all take place inside our heads. 

This understanding is important as it opens the door to a range of opportunities to promote mental well-being in people. Mental health can become an everyday affair and not something that needs to be discussed only when an illness occurs. Just as our physical well-being is dependent upon our access to resources such as nutrition and sanitation and maintenance through exercising, mental well-being can also be addressed by preventing illness and promoting health. Institutions such as the government, families, schools, and workplaces have the responsibility and can take active measures to ensure that all people have the necessary environment to grow and thrive in. Individuals can also work on becoming self-aware, navigating their emotions, and building positive relationships with others.

This understanding also creates space for dialogue and reduces the stigma around not feeling mentally healthy. Everyone in their lives faces some kind of adverse situation and may feel low or sad. Different people react differently to these situations. It is important to keep checking in with ourselves and our loved ones during these difficult times about how we are feeling, talk about our mental health and acknowledge when we need help. Doing so is just one way of being kind to ourselves and others. 

Wordsmith: Malavika. A. Srivathsa, Programme Associate, HELO Program

The Head, Heart & Love (HELO) Program is an initiative by Bhumi to make social and emotional learning (SEL) an integral part of education by fostering self and social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making in learning spaces*.– Visit bhumi.ngo/helo to know more.

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