Mar 17, 2010, 11:58 AM
For many people in the world, our health — particularly our mental health — is often taken for granted until something goes wrong. Only then do we realize just how important health is to our sense of fulfillment and happiness.
After all, in today’s fast-paced, technological world, there are often a variety of quick treatments for physical ailments, but not so for mental ones. If anything, treatments for mental health take time and patience for maximum effectiveness. In order to understand exactly what is meant by “mental health,” we need to first define what the overarching concept of “health” means.
Scientists in the past defined health simply as “an absence of disease or illness.” However, in 1948, when the World Health Organization was founded, the following definition of health was established: “A complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Looking at this definition, we realize that individuals can at once be relatively healthy in some aspects of life (e.g., normal blood pressure of 120/80 mm Hg), but unhealthy in others (e.g., suffering from depression). Thus, being healthy is not an “all-or-nothing” principle.
It is easy to assess physical health by taking health status measurements of the body. Blood pressure, temperature, and cholesterol levels, are all precise means by which we can tell if the physical components of the body are healthy. However, mental and social components of health are much more challenging to assess. Thoughts and perceptions of internal states are subjective and difficult to quantify. What then is mental health?
Mental health, as defined by the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, “refers to the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.” On the other end of the continuum is mental illness, a term that “refers to all mental disorders.
Mental disorders are health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning.” This notion of a continuum sees mental health on one end as ‘successful mental functioning’ compared to mental illness on the other end as ‘impaired functioning.’
A key to understanding mental health and mental illness is defining these terms in cultural contexts. The Western notion of mental health divides overall health into three realms; the Eastern notion views health in terms of bodily systems working in harmony. Imbalance or “disharmony” is the cause of illness and results from physical, psychological, nutritional, environmental or spiritual influences tipping that balance.
What are symptoms of Mental Health?
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.
Over the course of your life, if you experience mental health problems, your thinking, mood, and behaviour could be affected. Many factors contribute to mental health problems, including:
• Biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry
• Life experiences, such as trauma or abuse
• Family history of mental health problems
Mental health problems are common but help is available. People with mental health problems can get better and many recover completely.
Early Warning Signs
Not sure if you or someone you know is living with mental health problems? Experiencing one or more of the following feelings or behaviors can be an early warning sign of a problem:
•Eating or sleeping too much or too little
• Pulling away from people and usual activities
• Having low or no energy
•Feeling numb or like nothing matters
•Having unexplained aches and pains
• Feeling helpless or hopeless
• Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
•Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
• Yelling or fighting with family and friends
•Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
• Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head
•Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
• Thinking of harming yourself or others
•Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school
Mental Health and Wellness
Positive mental health allows people to:
•Realize their full potential
•Cope with the stresses of life
•Make meaningful contributions to their communities
Ways to maintain positive mental health include:
•Getting professional help if you need it
•Connecting with others
• Getting physically active
•Getting enough sleep
•Developing coping skills
WHY WORRY ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?
Why should people care about their mental health? The most obvious answer is that without being mentally healthy, an individual cannot consider herself “healthy” in the true sense of the word. More importantly, however, mental health affects our physical and social health. Researchers in health psychology have conducted numerous studies wherein mental disorders such as depression or social support have affected the outcomes of pregnancy, gastrointestinal disorders and heart disease. Components of our mental health not only affects our emotional states, but our bodies physiological and biological states, as well. Psychological and social factors have been linked to physical disease states in three ways: (1) psycho physiological hyperactivity, (2) disease stability and (3) host vulnerability
Refers to how psychological or social factors may influence existing disease. For instance, people who have asthma can never exactly predict when an asthma attack will occur or how severe the attack will be. Attacks and severity however, can be influenced by psychosocial factors such as the degree of stress in the immediate environment. The greater the stress the person is feeling, the greater the chance for a severe attack.
Is the prolonged effect of stress on the body. In essence, the patient or “host” is much more vulnerable to disease and illness because of exposure to mental stressors. This concept has been validated by research that shows that people are more likely to develop a common cold when they are under stress.
When we go to the doctor’s to describe a physical ailment (e.g., stomach pains), these physical complaints or symptoms may be affected by the mental stress we encounter in our daily lives. Add to the mental stress a feeling of isolation and lack of social support and many physical symptoms may be exacerbated or prolonged. In effect these three concepts illustrate just how inextricably linked the components of physical, mental and social health are related. In order to more effectively treat these ailments we must therefore treat the entire person—the mind, the body, and the soul of the individual.
Mental disorders may affect job prospects more than physical disability or illness
People’s employment prospects may be more badly affected by mental illness than physical illness or disability. The main obstacle to employing people with existing or past mental disorders is simply ignorance - or a lack of understanding. This is unfortunate, because mental illness is not linked to poorer job performance.
People with a mental illness are able to work, and to do their jobs well, the researchers stressed. On many occasions, an individual with a mental disorder may be the best person for a job.
It is estimated that about one in every five adults has some kind of mental illness or disorder. This means that employers with five or more staff most likely have personnel with some kind of mental illness, many of whom are in positions of responsibility and trust.
Treatments and strategies for mental health problems
There are various ways people with mental health problems might receive treatment. It is important to know that what works for one person may not work for another; this is especially the case with mental health. Some strategies or treatment are more successful when combined with others. The patient himself/herself with a chronic (long-term) mental disorder may draw on different options at different stages in his/her life. The majority of experts say that the well informed patient is probably the best judge of what treatment suits him/her better. It is crucial that healthcare professionals be aware of this.
There are a lot people with mental health problems may do to improve their mental health. Alterations in lifestyle, which may include a better diet, lower alcohol and illegal drug consumption, exercise and getting enough sleep can make enormous differences to a mental health patient’s mental health. Let’s have a closer look and some of these strategies:
For further information e firstname.lastname@example.org, Text to002207774469 / 3774469, or call on DRAzadeh Health live program at the AFRI-RADIO every Wed. from 9-9.30 am
Author DR H. AZADEH Senior Lecturer at the University of the Gambia W. Africa, Senior Consultant in Obstetrics & Gynaecology.