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Throughout life, mental health influences how we make decisions, manage stress and interact with others. Similar to physical health, mental health is important for optimal development at every stage of life.

However, before we get deeper into the subject of Optimal Mental Health, it is probably useful to first figure out what is Mental Health. Sometimes, such common terms can be slippery to nail down.  And, that exactly seems to be the case with this term Mental Health.

Mental Health

According to U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), Mental Health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Mental Illness

A related term Mental Illness, on the other hand, is defined as collectively all diagnosable mental disorders or health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.

Depression is the most common type of mental illness, affecting more than 26% of the U.S. adult population. It has been estimated that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing only ischemic heart disease, i.e., heart attack. The seriousness of mental health issues was clearly raised in a very comprehensive report, almost 500-page report: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.

Mental Health Indicators

In the health care and public health arena, more emphasis and resources have been devoted to screening, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness than mental health. Little has been done to protect the mental health of those free of mental illness. Researchers suggest that there are indicators of mental health, representing three domains:

  • Emotional well-being – such as perceived life satisfaction, happiness, cheerfulness, peacefulness.
  • Psychological well-being – such as self-acceptance, personal growth including openness to new experiences, optimism, hopefulness, purpose in life, control of one’s environment, spirituality, self-direction, and positive relationships, and
  • Social well-being – social acceptance, beliefs in the potential of people and society as a whole, personal self-worth and usefulness to society, sense of community.

One way to look at mental health and mental illness is that these are points along a continuum and neither state exists in pure isolation from the other.

Mind and Body are Inseparable

In another but related context, everyday language tends to encourage a misperception that “mental health” or “mental illness” is unrelated to “physical health” or “physical illness.” In fact, mental health and physical health are inseparable.

Although “mind” is a broad term that has had many different meanings over the centuries, these days it refers to the totality of mental functions related to thinking, mood, and purposive behavior. The mind is generally seen as deriving from activities within the brain but displaying emergent properties, such as consciousness.

One reason the people continue to this day to emphasize the difference between mental and physical health is embedded in language. Common parlance continues to use the term “physical” to distinguish some forms of health and illness from “mental” health and illness. People continue to see mental and physical as separate functions when, in fact, mental functions (e.g., memory) are physical as well.

Mental functions are carried out by the brain. Likewise, mental disorders are reflected in physical changes in the brain. Physical changes in the brain often trigger physical changes in other parts of the body too. The racing heart, dry mouth, and sweaty palms that accompany a terrifying nightmare are orchestrated by the brain. A nightmare is a mental state associated with alterations of brain chemistry that, in turn, provoke unmistakable changes elsewhere in the body.

A more appropriate and neutral distinction is between “mental” and “somatic” health. Somatic is a medical term that derives from the Greek word soma for the body. Mental health refers to the successful performance of mental functions in terms of thought, mood, and behavior. Mental disorders are those health conditions in which alterations in mental functions are paramount.

Somatic conditions are those in which alterations in non-mental functions predominate. While the brain carries out all mental functions, it also carries out some somatic functions, such as movement, touch, and balance. That is why not all brain diseases are mental disorders. For example, a stroke causes a lesion in the brain that may produce disturbances of movement, such as paralysis of limbs. When such symptoms predominate in a patient, the stroke is considered a somatic condition. But when a stroke mainly produces alterations of thought, mood, or behavior, it is considered a mental condition (e.g., dementia).

The point is that a brain disease can be seen as a mental disorder or a somatic disorder depending on the functions it perturbs.

Fixing the body can fix the mind and fixing mind can fix the body

There is plenty of evidence showing that mental disorders, especially depressive disorders could be caused by many chronic “physical” diseases including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and obesity.  At the same time, many risk behaviors that give rise to chronic diseases are physical inactivity, smoking, excessive drinking, and insufficient sleep whose underlying cause is mental health.

Then Why the Stigma to Mental Health Issues

Stigmatization of people with mental disorders has persisted throughout history. It is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and/or avoidance. Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders. It deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society.

Explanations for stigma stem, in part, from the misguided split between mind and body first proposed by Descartes. Another source of stigma lies in the 19th century separation of the mental health treatment system in the United States from the mainstream of health. These historical influences exert an often immediate influence on perceptions and behaviors in the modem world.

So, what is Optimal Mental Health?

Just as in the case of Optimal Physical Health, absence of disease, or in the case mental health, absent of mental illness does not seem to be quite adequate to define Optimal Mental Health.  Given that mental illness and mental health is a continuum, it begs some sort of scale to measure one’s mental health.

Here is one scale to calibrate your mental health during a specific time frame:emotional-scale-2

With this scale, if I  yesterday  I was feeling bored that would be a score of -1 for yesterday. Today I am feeling confident, that would be a  score of +2. Etc. For a while, using this scale, I used to keep a journal of my daily emotional state. 

This scale can be a good way to measure impact of any lifestyle changes on your mental or emotional health. For example, if you just added daily walk or daily meditation to your lifestyle, or started taking certain supplements, you could track impact this way.


Well-Being as Measure of Mental Health

Another way to measure and monitor is in terms of a more holistic term called Well-Being. Researchers from different disciplines have examined different aspects of well-being:

  • Physical well-being.
  • Economic well-being.
  • Social well-being.
  • Development and activity.
  • Emotional well-being.
  • Psychological well-being.
  • Life satisfaction.
  • Domain specific satisfaction.
  • Engaging activities and work.

A website, you can use to quantify your personal Well-Being and benchmark it against others is: http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org/engage/. After answering, 50 questions (it only takes 10-15 mintues) you can receive a plot like the following and an overall Well-Being score. You can then compare you score with others. or how it progresses. More importantly, you can explore area of opportunities where you would like to grow and focus your attention for improving your well-being.


Jack Kornfield on Optimal Health

Jack Kornfield, a bestselling American author, yoga-mediation teacher and Buddhist monk has an interesting definition of Optimal Mental Health.  On his website he has the following description:

We have within us an extraordinary capacity for love, for joy, and unshakable freedom.  Buddhist psychology describes this as optimal mental health. I have seen this optimal wellbeing in many of my teachers. Ajahn Jumnian describes his mind as completely steady, silent and free throughout both his waking and sleeping hours.  He says, “I haven’t experienced a single moment of frustration or anger for over twenty years.” I’ve also observed that he sleeps only one or two hours a night. Ajahn Jumnian describes his inner life quite simply, “When I am alone, my mind rests in pure awareness. I am simply at peace.  Then whenever I encounter people and experiences, the awareness automatically fills with loving-kindness or compassion. This is the natural expression of pure awareness.”  Those around Ajahn Jumnian feel his free spirit and unshakable joy.

Now that is taking Optimal Health to whole different level!

Bottom Line:

We laid the foundation of some fundamentals on how to define and measure optimal mental health. In the next blog post, we will get down to methods for achieving Optimal Mental Health.

A quick summary of what we covered here:

Throughout life, mental health influences how we make decisions, manage stress and interact with others.

Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Mental health includes:

  • Emotional well-being
  • Psychological well-being, and
  • Social well-being

Mind and body are NOT separate.  Each influences and controls the health of the other.  It is a historical quirk in the evolution of medicine that we treat the two separately.  This separation has also led to much stigma to the mental health issues and separation of medicine applied to mind vs. the body.

We could calibrate mental health by using some scale like the one presented in this post to measure mental health as emotional health and track impact of introducing changes in lifestyle.

Ideally, to understand Optimal Health, we need to track total Well-being. You may want to use the nef website to calibrate your total Well-being and explore opportunities for improvement.

Long term meditators and Buddhist Monks define and are able to demonstrate Optimal Mental Health as a state of pure awareness that is full of compassion and love, and is above the daily swings of emotions.

What are your thoughts on this subject?

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