It’s a term very often used, but very seldom understood, and, it may seem, even less often possessed. I certainly don’t have a good definition of the term. I doubt I possess much of it, either, whatever IT is. And, given the way many other psychiatrists use the term, I’m not entirely sure I’d want to!
That said, I do believe ‘mental health‘ does exist, and is obtainable for all of us. How so, you might ask? How could persons with, say, schizophrenia, or a severe brain injury, or chronic depression, or debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, actually BE mentally healthy? Well, not easily, I will admit. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible for all of them, all of us. Importantly, I do NOT think of mental health as the complete absence of “mental illness“. To the contrary, I don’t believe the two terms are necessarily related at all. I tend to think of mental illness as a “condition”, and of mental health as a way of living. We’ll get into the differences as we go, but why don’t we start with some definition of terms.
First, what does “mental” refer to? According to Webster’s, mental is an adjective which refers to any intellectual process, or otherwise to things pertaining to the mind. Of course, this leads to the next, and bigger, question: What is the “mind”? And, what does “intellectual” mean? Well, now, these will take us a little bit deeper.
The mind, in my view, is that part of us that “thinks” and “chooses”. It is the part of us that “believes” things to be true, or to be false, and various shadings in between. It is the part of our “consciousness” (that is, the part of us that is aware of ourselves, the world around us, and of what we are feeling or experiencing at any given moment) that we can truly control. The mind is not very easy to control, granted, as our thoughts often seem to roll on and on, many times in very bothersome patterns, despite many of our efforts to stop them, or to change our thought courses. But, it is possible to control it. The mind is the seat of “attitude”, or “mindset”. This is the way it can lean toward a more positive or negative view of life at any given time, or a more fearful or more determined view. The mind is also our main “scientist”: the part of us that makes predictions about what will happen if we do this or that, and tests those predictions out. The mind takes in data from our senses, takes in the world’s responses to our words and actions, takes in data from our own emotional states, and from that data (which may be HIGHLY skewed and inaccurate) formulates beliefs about ourselves, certain other persons and entities, and the world at large. As time goes by, the mind shapes and shades those beliefs, and finds its own “comfort zone”; it forms a repertoire of action and verbal responses to others around us that it thinks typically bring rewards, and/or avoid negative results. The mind does all of this, though very seldom do we really check out just how well it’s doing its job! And that is where we get into ruts of unproductive habits, false beliefs, and inaccurate self-talk. And by the way, the mind is also responsible for talking to itself, for talking to “us”.
So, if the mind is all of that, what is it NOT? Well, in my view, emotions are not truly part of the mind. Emotions happen. They are more brain reactions than mind reactions, to various events or sensory inputs or mental thoughts. Emotions are nearly impossible to prevent, and very difficult to control. Again, they simply happen. Once emotions occur, both the brain, the body, and the mind all respond, but the body and brain respond first, with a variety of reactions that can include laughter in response to humor, tearfulness in reaction to sadness, reflexive recoiling and exclamations in reaction to fright, yelling and hitting walls in reaction to anger. The mind also reacts, though typically more slowly, unless one trains the mind to be in greater-than-usual readiness for emotions to occur.
As implied above, I also do not see the brain itself as part of the mind. I don’t believe the mind can exist without the brain, and thus if or when the brain ceases activity, the mind fades out. However, I see the mind as more than just a grand symphony resulting from the accumulated firing of thousands or perhaps millions of neurons at any given time. Most other neuroscientists would perhaps disagree with me, but in a purely neurological and physical sense, I believe ‘mind’ transcends physical neuronal function. That symphony known as our consciousness takes on a life of its own as we mature, and I prefer to think of it has having sovereign powers that the brain itself does not possess. No doubt, though, there is an undeniable connection between mind and brain, but I don’t think of them as one and the same.
Finally, the mind is not the soul. This, of course, is a matter of faith, but my innermost self, which I believe is my “soul”, proclaims to me that it is more than body, more than brain, and more than mind. It is. It has no language. It inhabits, but also transcends, my mind. It is where my deepest longings and yearnings stem from, and, I believe, where my deepest connection with the Creator exists.
All of these things are the mere beginnings of discussions, and will wait for another day, another post.
For now, let it suffice to say that from the vision of the mind we will launch into a fuller discussion of what I see as obtainable mental health.
Please, if you’ve read this far, stick around! I promise to get us back home to Kansas soon!