The Big Question: What Is “Mental Health”?

If you ask ten different people to define the term “mental health”, you’ll probably get ten different answers. So before we go any further, let’s start from the beginning:

What is mental health?

To answer that, let’s compare it to something that we all have at least a basic understanding of: our physical health.

When we think about our physical health, we think about our skin, muscles, bones, tissues, and organs. Our nervous system regulates and controls how those systems interact, and our immune system controls our ability to fight off and prevent infections and disease. We can also talk about what we put into our bodies, such as our diet, alcohol, and drugs, since these are the things that power or inhibit us, and have a direct impact on our physical well-being.

So, defining physical heath seems pretty straight forward. Now, how do we define our mental health? Because our mental health isn’t really something as tangible. We can’t hold it, feel it or perform surgery on it. The brain unto itself may be a part of our physical body, but inside our minds lies our sense of self. We possess emotions, feelings, and memories, and the really special bit is the unique way in which we wire all of those things together to present our conscious self.

Think of mental health as your emotional inventory. We add to it and subtract from it all the time, and at any given moment we can assess what we have, what we’re missing, what’s useful, and what isn’t. So let’s say our heart – our proverbial heart, the one that we fall in love with and do crazy stuff because of – let’s say our heart and our mind got together and decided to rent out a big warehouse to store all of our feelings, emotions, and memories. They gave you the keys, of course, because you’re the boss, so you can pop in at any time and see what’s happening. Now, when you walk in, flick the lights on and stand in the middle of it of this giant warehouse that is YOU…well, you guessed it. It can seem very overwhelming. Even scary. Our minds and our hearts are very efficient at storing away many different things, sometimes things that we wish they weren’t so attached to, and if we tried to comprehend and understand – or, to put it anther way, take inventory of them all at once – I think most of us would throw up our hands, turn out the lights, and walk right out.

Now, it was that overwhelming feeling that I encountered personally when I began my own mental health journey, and that feeling was a big reason why I started the VIV Mental Health Initiative. I am one of those people wired to think in big ways, in big concepts, and when I started to take a look inside my own “warehouse”, I couldn’t help but see everything all at once. It was, to say the least, daunting. I thought, “There is no way I’m going to be able to sift through all of this”. Rows and rows towering high above me…where do I even start?

So, when I say that we need to change the way we talk about mental health, I mean two things. Number one, is that just like we all have physical bodies that we need to take care of, we all have mental health that we need to take care of as well. There are some things that we may feel are best taken care of privately, like say, between you and your doctor. But there are also other areas where we can – and should – learn from and support each other. Like when we get together to play sports, or like each other’s gym selfies, or do those crazy 30-day fitness challenges. Humans succeed because we work together. We tend to encourage each other to live better, make healthier choices, and we like to see our kids growing up active and participating in different activities. Our mental health can flourish with that same attitude. In a way, it’s a benefit that socially, the concept of mental health is a little bit behind physical health, because we can draw on a lot of comparisons, and learn from the successes and mistakes that have been made en route to our physical health becoming the priority that it is in our lives today.

The other benefit I see with changing the mental health conversation is through education. Specifically, how we’re “going to school” about all of this. Now, there are a ton of great resources out there. There’s numbers you can call, therapists you can see, charts, graphs, stats, blogs, memes, and Instagram accounts to follow. And those are all incredibly important. But there still seems to be a gap between actually having the desire to seek those things out when we need them, and actually doing the thing and finding that desire and willingness to go to that mental gym to work out those kinks. That gap exists because – ironically enough – it’s our mental state, that prevents us from building that bridge that we need to cross. Building a bridge takes work. Sometimes hard work. And we tend to ask ourselves, “Why work, when I can just stay over here, keep my head down, and hope the water doesn’t rise anymore?” We’ve all been there. When the going gets tough, we’re already feeling tired and defeated. We often convince ourselves that we can just endure, suppress, and simply survive. But life isn’t just about survival. Survival is the bare minimum that we can ask of ourselves. We can not only survive, but we can revive our sense of self and pull ourselves back from the effects of trauma, stress, or anxiety.

Understanding mental health is the keystone in the bridge. It’s how we’ll tear down the stigmas, make the conversations easier, and keep them going.

Published by Kristopher Marks

Kristopher is the founder of the VIV Mental Health Initiative and the host of the VIV Mental Health Podcast. A passionate mental health advocate, public speaker, and current student of psychology at Athabasca University, he is also a journeyman red seal machinist, guitarist, and passionate sports fan.

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