What is “Mental Health?” Part II

In my first installment on this topic, I described the current model of “mental illness,” which seems to be the dominant focus of the mental healthcare profession. Rather than focusing on what constitutes a “healthy” mental state, the medical model and insurance driven services have led the mental health profession to identify “what is wrong” with a client’s mental state, address that problem, and if the “problem” is removed, we are to assume the client is no longer “suffering” from a “mental illness.” Focusing on the removal of symptoms of “mental illness” is not an adequate way for either the mental health professional or the client to determine whether the client has achieved mental “health.” I will now offer some insights into what amounts to a healthy mental state, with or without reference to issues of mental illness.

In its briefest (and therefore necessarily incomplete) form, the best way I can describe the ideal of mental health is a state in which a person is able and willing to address every aspect of their inner life, regardless of whether they experience difficult feelings, including fear, while addressing those aspects of their inner life. This is the opposite of running from aspects of your inner life that make you uncomfortable. I used the word “ideal” in my description of “mental health” because no one can ever address every single aspect of their inner lives. We are just too complicated for that. We also evolve, and that evolution of our inner selves never stops, so there are new experiences, memories, concerns, issues and relationships to contend with, which all present new challenges. So, let’s put “mental health” on a spectrum or a continuum; at the least healthy end is “avoiding all aspects of our inner lives” and at the other is “addressing all aspects our inner lives.”


avoiding (inner life)—————————————–addressing (inner life)


This is not the kind of continuum in which the middle ground indicates a good balance. In this continuum, no matter where you are on that line, moving toward the right is a sign of increased “mental health.” There is no point at which we can say, “this is good enough,” and leave it at that. Strangely, if we are not increasing our capacity and willingness to address our inner experiences, our emotions, our inner conflicts, we do not merely stop on the line, we automatically begin to move back toward the left, toward escaping, avoiding, dismissing, discounting, denying and repressing aspects of our inner selves that make us uncomfortable. There is no such thing as coasting once you’ve reached a certain point. I see this phenomenon again and again in my therapy practice with clients. A client or a couple or a family will make progress in dealing with emotional issues, they will have attained their therapy goals more or less. They then leave therapy, and several months or a year later, I get a call, and they come back, having fallen back into behaviors that help them avoid addressing conflict within themselves and in their relationships. They left therapy and then forgot that they needed to continue to address their inner lives or they would go back to old patterns eventually. Alcoholics Anonymous reveals this fact in its 12 step program. After completing most of the steps, the Tenth Step of A.A. says, “Continued to take our personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” There is no end to the work of the tenth step. It’s continual. Imagine cleaning house. If the house is really cluttered and messy, it can take a great deal of effort to clean it all up and arrange things how you want them. Once you do that, though, you can’t just stop cleaning. If you do, things will get very messy again, and you’ll be right back where you started. You have to continue to pick things up, put them where they belong, and do a little cleaning every day along the way to maintain that state of cleanliness. Mental health is very similar.  We are either growing, or we are regressing.  There are multiple reasons for this, but that is a topic for another article or blog.


Maintaining good mental health can require a fairly significant attitude adjustment about how you want to live your life. The further you are on the left of that line (toward avoiding your inner life), the greater your attitude may need to change. Also, a person might feel a strong urge or need to stay on the left of the line. Someone might be in an abusive relationship and want to get out, but there are children involved, financial distress, and years of patterns which seem inescapable. A person might have been raised with very little confidence in themselves, or in the possibility of change, and therefore has come to believe after many years of avoiding themselves, their feelings, the reasons their relationships are difficult, that they do not have the capacity to make serious changes in how they approach themselves and their feelings. A victim of trauma may be afraid of new trauma. These are all real concerns. Yet, they do not need to prevent movement on the line toward the right, toward a greater capacity and willingness to address and make changes to their inner struggles. It might just mean the road is longer or more difficult toward getting there and they need added support and resources.


So, what are the benefits of “mental health” as I’ve defined it here? Why go through all this trouble of addressing scary or painful or seemingly endless inner strife and struggle? Is it worth it? One way to answer these questions is with another question: what happens if you stay on the left side of the line, continuing to avoid the issues in your inner life that need to be addressed? Drug addicts continue to use drugs to escape, with all the trouble that comes with addiction. Victims in an abusive relationship continue to be abused. Past trauma continues to haunt its victims, controlling their decisions and causing problems in their current relationships in ways they do not understand and cannot control. Family childhood issues like mistrust, honesty, secrets, denial, feeling unwanted, impossible expectations, are projected onto current work or home situations that make life difficult without it having to be so difficult. If a person is unable or unwilling to address serious issues of their inner selves, the behavior they use to avoid those issues (e.g. alcohol, drugs, gambling, workaholic, unstable relationships, etc.) can itself be highly destructive. Even if people are not engaged in highly destructive behaviors of avoidance, those issues will continue to have a negative impact on their lives until they are understood and addressed.


The greater your ability and willingness to address all of these kinds of mental health issues, the greater your flexibility in dealing with new issues as they arise, and the more you are likely not to fall into patterns of avoidance, which allow these issues to disrupt your lives, your moods and your relationships. Perhaps an even greater benefit of growing over time toward the right side of the line is the assurance you will gain in your ability to cope with whatever life may throw at you. Personal struggles can really bring about new strengths, including the capacity to stay strong in spite of adverse circumstances. Risk averse behavior can help you avoid negative consequences of those risks, but it can also keep you trapped in a life of limitations. If you have engaged in a course of personal struggle that leads to personal growth, you will take the risks, and achieve the benefits of those risks, to reach the short-term and the long-term goals you have always wanted. This is also something I see with my clients. When they have really begun to address inner issues they had been avoiding, people also begin to do things in their lives they had not previously thought they would even try (changing careers, going back to school, getting promotions, finding new and more meaningful relationships). This is because they have not only made strides in dealing with whatever inner struggles they had been avoiding, but they have also begun to have a much stronger sense of their own value, their abilities to get what they want, because they are less afraid of what will happen if they don’t—they know they will be able to deal with disappointment and setbacks better than before.  A person able to deal with the issues deep within them also becomes more able to deal with whatever issues are going on around them. And this is proven to be a significant benefit of mental health every day in what I see my clients achieve.


Mental health is not defined by the absence of fear. We are all afraid sometimes. Mental health is defined by our capacity and our willingness to face our inner feelings, thoughts, attitudes and perceptions, in spite of fear. We need to move past our fears so we can make choices that bring greater meaning and happiness to our lives. Once we see the benefits of addressing the issues in our inner lives, we will not want to stop. We will see ourselves more able to cope with change and adversity when it arises, because we will understand and have greater control over our reactions to those changes. We will feel stronger in our capacity to adjust our thinking, perceptions, and understanding of new challenges without losing any sense of ourselves. We will know that we can remain strong internally no matter what happens around us, but this can happen only when we stop running from ourselves, when we embrace a new kind of mental health.

This topic–“what is mental health” is going to be an ongoing topic with new entries from time to time, interspersed with my other blog entry.  Who knows, it may even become the basis of some kind of longer work, and maybe even a book at some point.  I have the idea of writing different entries on how people with different specific mental health issues can successfully move from the left to the right on the line from avoiding to addressing their inner life concerns. So, look for the category “What is Mental Health” to find the entire series all in one place, as this topic grows.  I hope you find this helpful and even maybe interesting and enjoyable reading.