Physical health adds years to life but mental health adds life to those years.
The tremendous advances in medical science apart, the idea of mental health as part of holistic well-being still doesn’t evoke the interest it deserves, at least in the developing world. To some extent, this indifference is understandable given that a majority of such countries are still struggling with the more mundane issues of poverty, hunger, unemployment and basic medical facilities. Given this situation, any talk of mental health is, quite expectedly, greeted with derision, at worst and indifference, at best. The revolution in mental health care in terms of its open acceptance and de-stigmatization will require a concerted effort by governments across the world, awareness campaigns and improved economic well-being.
Managing mental health during COVID-19 has become even a bigger challenge given the severe restrictions on economic and social activities globally. For professionals managing mental health during COVID-19, there has been a record rise in the number of mentally sick people. I, being a life coach, get to talk to many people having such problems. Such problems contribute to the issues which people bring to a life coach. The life coach needs to work with the client on such issues to realize the most from the consultation process.
And from my experience, I can tell you that we need to get a strong handle on “mental health” first before we proceed. Contrary to common perception, mental health is NOT just “the absence of mental disorders or disabilities.” Rather, it is a positive state of well-being in which an individual realizes his/her abilities, can cope with normal stresses, works productively, and makes a contribution to the community. In other words, it refers to the overall cognitive, behavioral, and emotional well-being of an individual.
Benefits of Good Mental Health
With good mental health, challenges are easier to overcome. Whereas some people take to alcohol/drugs, withdrawal or fighting as coping mechanisms to manage relationship disputes, financial worries, workplace challenges and other issues, a mentally healthy person tends to adopt healthier solution-oriented coping mechanisms.
Enhanced Quality of Life
With mental well-being comes better quality of life, thereby making room for greater participation in community building e.g. volunteering, taking up local causes, fundraising etc. One is also more likely to pick up new hobbies, make new acquaintances, and travel more.
Mental health is strongly linked to self-perception as it plays a big part in building self-esteem. Self-confidence is very often a good indicator of a healthy mind. A mentally healthy person is more likely to focus on the good in themselves and hone it and is fired by the ambitions of a healthy, happy life.
With good mental health, you are more capable of having quality time, affection and support with your friends and family. Besides, with there being no emotional distress, it is easier to support the people you care for, when they need it. One cannot expect an unhealthy person to support another unhealthy person!
Depression or other such disorders affect productivity negatively. A mentally strong person is more likely to work more efficiently and produce good quality work.
Factors in Mental Health
Given this background, it is obvious that mental health affects all aspects of daily living, relationships and overall health. Conditions like stress, depression, and anxiety can all affect mental health, thereby disrupting a person’s routine. Besides, many psychological disorders are rooted in biological factors as discussed below.
Across the world, mental disorders are a leading cause of physical and mental distress, bad relationships, poor productivity, absenteeism, reduced performance and suicides. Unfortunately, as of now, we do not know much about the exact causes of many such disorders. But ongoing medical research has made it amply clear that most of them result from a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Social and financial circumstances, biological factors, and lifestyle choices can all shape a person’s mental health. Good mental health depends on a delicate balance of various factors and elements of life and the world at large that work together to contribute to such disorders.
- Biological Factors
Some common mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are linked to abnormal functioning of neural circuits in the brain. These circuits interact with each other through a give-and-take of neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine etc.). Therefore, a popular approach to the treatment of such diseases is tweaking these chemicals through medicines or psychotherapy to help the brain circuits work more efficiently. Besides, some defects/injuries to certain brain areas are also linked to some mental conditions like memory loss, loss of speech etc..
Many mental illnesses often run in families as they are rooted in genes. Mental illnesses are linked to many genes working together rather than one of them or a few. How they interact with the environment is unique in case of every person. That’s why developing targeted drugs for such diseases often becomes a big challenge for researchers. The revolution in mental health care would necessitate more of such genome sequencing so that medical researchers can develop more targeted drugs to treat many such disorders.
That also explains why some people inherit a tendency for a mental illness but don’t necessarily develop it as the illness occurs due to multiple genes interacting among themselves and other triggering factors like stress, abuse, or trauma. It’s quite similar to the way diabetes develops i.e. one may be born with the genes for it, but whether one actually develops diabetes is also a function of environmental factors like weight, exercise, nutrition, stress etc.
Some kinds of infections are often linked to brain damage and mental illnesses or the deterioration of their symptoms. For instance, the pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder (PANDAS) attributed to Streptococcus bacteria causes an obsessive-compulsive disorder among children.
4. Brain defects/injuries
Certain defects/ injuries in certain brain regions can cause some mental illnesses e.g. damage to the hippocampus, which results in amnesia.
5. Pre-natal damage
Birth traumas like the shortage of oxygen can disrupt and arrest early fetal brain development, which may, in turn, trigger certain conditions like autism.
6. Substance abuse
Long-term substance abuse is linked to problems like anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
7. Other factors
Stress, depression, and anxiety may develop due to health problems like cancer, diabetes, and chronic pain. Poor nutrition and exposure to toxins like mercury (Minamata disease) and lead (poor intellectual functioning) in early age may lead to mental illnesses.
- Psychological Factors
- Exposure to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood
- Loss of a parent/ primary care-giver
- Prolonged emotional neglect
- Poor ability to relate to others
- Environmental Factors
- Death of a loved one or parents’ divorce/ separation
- Broken families, dysfunctional family life
- Feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness
- Change of job/ school
- Social or cultural expectations e.g. associating beauty with a lean body can be a factor in triggering eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia nervosa etc.
- Alcohol/ drug abuse by self/ parents
Common Symptoms of Mental Disorders
The absence of a physical test or a scan, which can reliably detect a mental illness, make she task of identifying mental illnesses difficult. However, some common symptoms that we can look for as possible signs of a mental disorder:
- Social withdrawal from family, friends and colleagues 2. Avoiding favourite activities
- Oversleeping/ under-sleeping 4. Over/under- eating
- Feelings of hopelessness 6. Low energy level
- Using alcohol, nicotine 8. Having negative emotions
- Problems with daily tasks 10. Self-harming tendencies
- Having delusions
- Unexplained confusion, anger, guilt or worry
- Mood swings
- Picking fights with family, friends
- “Hearing” voices with no identifiable source
- Inability to perform daily tasks with ease
Common Mental Disorders
The most common types of mental illnesses are:
- Anxiety-related disorders
- Mood-related disorders
- Schizophrenia and related disorders
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. Anxiety-related disorders refer to disproportionate worry which disrupts everyday living. Patients with anxiety experience fear or anxiety in the presence of certain objects or situations. Such people tend to avoid exposure to situations, which trigger anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) patients may experience excessive anxiety in everyday situations like doing routine chores or meeting someone. Such patients can also experience physical symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, tense muscles and sleep disruptions.
Patients with a panic disorder have regular panic attacks involving a feeling of sudden terror or an imminent disaster and death.
An irrational, excessive fear of certain objects, scenarios, or animals e.g. a fear of spiders or heights.
A k a social anxiety, it is the fear of being subject to the others’ judgment. Such people tend to reduce their social exposure.
A fear of open places like a marketplace.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
People with OCD suffer from obsessions and compulsions i.e. persistent, stressful thoughts and an urge to perform repetitive acts like hand washing or locking a door repeatedly, bathing again and again.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
A PTSD is a result of someone experiencing a very stressful or traumatic event earthquake, war, ethnic conflict, acts of terrorism etc..
A k a affective disorders or depressive disorders. Patients have significant mood changes, generally involving either mania – high energy and elation, or depression. Examples of mood disorders are:
Consistently low mood and loss of interest in favourite activities and prolonged sadness.
Bipolar patients experience unusual changes in mood, energy and activity level. The ‘highs’ bring a manic phase, while depressive periods bring a low mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Reduced daylight triggers it during the fall, winter, and early spring months. It’s quite common in countries located far away from the equator.
Schizophrenia and related disorders
Mental health Professionals are still not sure of whether schizophrenia is a single disorder or a group of them. Typically, schizophrenia appears between 16 and 30 years, with the affected person exhibiting thought disruptions. The individual experiences a fragmentation of thoughts, with there being no filter to check it and finds it hard to process information.
Schizophrenia is usually marked by delusions, thought disruptions, and hallucinations, social withdrawal, lack of motivation and a flat (indifferent) mood.
In general, various methods are available for managing mental health problems. Of course, the treatment plan is tailored to each individual and what works for one person may not work for another one. Most often, a combination of strategies is most successful in terms of results.
Different Types of Mental Health Treatment
A k a talk therapy. It takes a psychological approach to treating mental illnesses. Some examples can be cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Typically, psychologists and psychotherapists employ psychotherapy to relieve the symptoms of patients suffering from mental disorders. Psychotherapy is based on the idea of helping people understand the root cause of their problems and enabling them to develop healthy thought patterns. People with anxiety or depression benefit from mind skill training and relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness.
One of the factors behind the revolution in mental health care is the use of medicines.
In many cases, a psychiatrist may prescribe medications like tranquilizers, antidepressants, antipsychotics and other drugs to relive the symptoms of such illnesses. Although the medicines cannot cure mental disorders, they can relieve their symptoms and help the patients function effectively in routine life.
Some of them work by boosting the body’s absorption of happy hormones like serotonin from the brain. Others boost the overall levels of these chemicals or prevent their degradation or destruction.
A significant part of the overall healing process is the willingness and readiness of the affected person as they usually need change their lifestyles to facilitate wellness. Such changes may involve
Risk Factors in Poor Mental Health
Mental health is an important part of overall well-being. It determines how effectively you can operate psychologically, emotionally, and socially to lead a productive and happy life, which allows for meaningful contributions to society.
One just needs to look at the millions of broken families, poor productivity, lost man-hours, absenteeism, personal distress, rising divorces and suicides to gauge how much havoc bad mental health can wreak on anyone. Thus, in view of the role it plays in all aspects of your life, it’s important to improve psychological wellness with appropriate measures.
However, different circumstances may come to affect our ability to handle the curveballs life throws at us. Some of them are
A child facing physical assault, sexual violence, emotional abuse or neglect during its early years can develop severe mental and emotional distress later. In fact, loving relationships and good mental health in early years are the backbones of a happy, well-adjusted personality. Such abuse accentuates the risk of developing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorders. Abused children may eventually develop problems of substance abuse, besides other diseases.
A person’s usual environment contributes to mental well-being as adverse circumstances can impact psychological wellness negatively. For instance, experiencing extreme weather conditions or air pollution or natural disasters firsthand can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD.
One’s biological makeup could affect their well-being as discussed earlier. Many such disorders run in families and may be transmitted to the next generation e.g. autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.
One’s lifestyle also impacts mental health e.g. smoking, poor diet, alcoholism and substance use, and risky sexual behavior may cause psychological damage by giving rise to or worsening depression.
Looking after Mental Health
It’s important to maintain your mental health to get the most out of life. The Top Ten Tips given below won’t cost you much money or time.
- Accept yourself
Self-acceptance is the key to good mental health. You can become someone else. Remember, none is perfect and trying to improve oneself in some aspect or the other is a sensible thing to do. But alongside, learn to love yourself, with warts and all. If you can’t love yourself, none else can!
Talking about your own feelings with friends and family can help you stay in good mental health and deal with troubled times. You may not always get a solution this way but in many cases, just talking about your problem make you feel immensely better.
- Eat, sleep well
The brain needs many diverse nutrients to keep healthy and work just the way other organs do. Taking a nutritious, balanced diet is good for your physical and mental health. Likewise, have enough, quality sleep to maintain your mental health.
- Get going
Exercising regularly boosts your self-esteem and helps you concentrate, sleep, and feel better by releasing feel-good chemicals. It keeps your brain and other vital organs in good shape and also improves your mental health.
- Drink sensibly
Having a drink to change one’s mood or deal with a fear or loneliness is common but its effects are temporary. As its effects wear off, you feel worse due to the way alcohol works on your brain and the rest of the body. Look for better ways to deal with such feelings and develop more effective coping strategies.
- Keep in touch
Nothing to beat catching up with someone face to face, but that may not be always possible. So, give a call, drop a note, or chat online instead to keep the lines of communication open. It’s good for your mental health!
You aren’t a superhuman. Nor is anyone else. It’s okay to feel tired or overwhelmed sometimes when things don’t work as per plan or expectations. Ask for help from your family or friends, who may be able to offer practical help or a patient listening. Having a support network in the family and close friends can greatly accelerate the recovery from a mental illness.
- Take a break
Take time off work. Changing the scene or place can work wonders for your mental health. It may be a 5-minute pause from your routine chores, a 30-minute lunch break in the office or a weekend getaway. But it can also be a longer break i.e. a vacation. In most cases, this ‘me time’ is enough to de-stress you.
- Enjoy hobbies
Do what you love to do. Enjoy yourself to beat stress. Do something you’re good at e.g. music, painting, cooking, stitching, carpentry etc. to boost your self-esteem.
Re-calibrate your thought processes to make them more realistic and work on personal relationships contributing to bad mental health.