For a while now, I’ve felt this niggling irritation about a widespread use of the term ‘mental health’. It feels like a badly written outer-label, inaccurately describing what’s going on on the inside. I know, I could get over myself, but I’ve decided to share my thoughts here instead.
Firstly, the term ‘mental health’ completely omits the word emotional (read what I had to say about that, here). Emotions and emotional wellbeing feature in nearly all of the definitions of mental health, but you wouldn’t know it from its label.
There’s no mention or hint of physical, spiritual or relational health either. In fact physical health still remains completely split off altogether and is mostly parked in the medical model bay, separated from any other features of our overall wellbeing.
Here’s the thing, I believe that many of our ordinary, everyday difficulties with mental health are often ‘mis-diagnosed.’ What many of us go through is more akin to the normal experience of being human. We all have thoughts. We all have feelings. Lots of us have a transpersonal experience of life too. And it’s probably safe to say that every single one of us struggles from time to time – or at least grapples – with the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of living life. And being human.
So, I wonder whether most of the ‘mental health’ experience we encounter is more about being human; all part of the human condition.
Can we Learn to See Differently?
That said, perhaps rather than mental health being a ‘thing’ we all need to commoditise and conquer, could it be time to start seeing ourselves differently? I found myself wondering why, as a society, we might be trying to overcome it all? To change ‘bad mental health’ into ‘good mental health.’
For what purpose?
Is it so that we can continue running in the rat race we still call life?
It could be helpful to start looking at the system design (of life) instead of looking to fix the symptoms; aka our ‘mental health’.
Or perhaps our unrealistic goal to be happy for most of the time we are alive is becoming a new addiction?
As I muse more and more about this, I find myself wondering what can we learn from nature.
Take Winter. It’s a dark and quiet time designed for hibernating; for preserving energy. It’s made for rest and recouperation from the burst of Spring and the long, hot and active summer months where everything is above ground, vibrant and alive. The gradual slowing down of Autumn eases us gently into Winter.
Plants wither. Creatures hibernate as the natural world closes its doors for this time. Nature is busy on the inside conserving energy, re-fuelling and re-recuperating after the huge surge of energy for much of the year. Our bodies, minds and spirits; our whole energy in fact, naturally wants to follow suit. We are all impacted by the changing seasons’ energies. There’s no doubt about that.
Yet, do we humans take note or even contemplate changing our rhythms so we can be in-tune with this natural order of life and living?
Let me speak for myself here – no, not really! Yet part of me wishes I could, or would. I know that Covid-19 and the pandemic has forced many of us to change our routines, rhythms and habits altogether – never mind what nature is up to – but if you could design your life around nature and the natural rhythms of life, would you?
While most of us notice the seasons through the cocoon of our double-glazed windows and centrally heated homes, it often stops right there. We carry on with our busy lives day after day, month after month ad infinitum. And we criticise ourselves with some subtle, sabotaging self-talk when we struggle to do the same things in January as we were doing in June.
So what stops us from doing what feels good on the inside, instead of what the world defines as looking good on the outside?
Conforming feels comfortable. Until it doesn’t, of course. That’s when it can harm us most as we work against ourselves and our deep, inner-knowing. Compliance means that at least we belong, though; in a community of other rat racers, keeping up the speed of a persistently productive life.
Crafting and cultivating what might be considered an unconventional life – perhaps one that’s different from the ‘norm’ or is in-tune with nature – can feel risky. But like everything we choose that feels different or deviates from the norm, it involves engaging with our courage, making a choice. Putting our own needs, instincts and beliefs front and centre of our lives instead of on the back-burner, neglected until it’s too late.
And what might that kind of life even look like?
It’s genuinely something I’d love to explore for myself because I honestly believe that some of the reasons humans struggle is because we’re cutting ourselves off from the natural world. Indigenous tribes know this. They work in harmony with the land, the plants and the animal kingdom. They feel connected to the earth beneath their feet. They feel. They create real communities, living together and supporting each other without money or commercialism being the currency.
I honestly believe we’ve inadvertently harmed our planet – and continue to demolish its natural resources – because we’re living and working in ways which could do with a serious re-vamp – never mind the re-branding of a label! I’m sure this all goes much deeper than that.
When we negate the natural order of life, in ourselves and in our relationship with our environment, we suffer. Our own genuine human needs get discarded. Instead, we opt for an artificial version of life; something viewed as shiny, productive, successful and acceptable to others, regardless of any mental, physical, emotional or spiritual sacrifices or injuries we encountered getting there.
Likewise, the seasons of our lives need acknowledging too. So often, I meet people who are battling themselves as they fight to hold on – to the same job, the same way of life or the same purpose they had at aged 25 – resisting what human nature is showing them as they’ve grown and evolved. Our innate intelligence is aligned to nature. We are born, we grow, we reach well-trodden milestones (if we are lucky) and we eventually let go and die.
This is the natural order of life.
It’s Good to Talk
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that so many more people are now more aware of how they feel. They’re talking and sharing their stories with an openness, vulnerability and emotion which is encouraging and can feel liberating. This public exposing of our inner-selves as well as the external has helped – and continues to help – enormously as we heal the gaping hole that was present in our everyday reports of being human.
But, if we are to continue to build genuine, authentic relationships, have heartfelt human connections and normalise the business of ‘being human’ I think our mental health label might need a re-brand.
And yes, my tongue is tucked right inside my cheek as I say that.
The real inner-jarring happens for me when mental health becomes an independent ‘thing’, separate from the whole person. Or when it becomes something to commoditise; or at least when it starts to appear that way because of the way it’s portrayed, packaged or partitioned off from what it’s really like to be human.
And please know that I’m not referring to mental illness in this article. That’s something quite different altogether (although, even that label might benefit from a little unpacking too!) What I’m referring to here, are those everyday ups and downs that everybody experiences throughout life. Our worries, anxieties, fears or sadness; our anger, our shame or depressed feelings which may be patterns of our upbringing or the ongoing pressures of ordinary life.
I’m referring to how we cope with major life challenges or changes; like having a baby or getting fired. Getting married or divorced or not getting married at all. Losing a loved one, or coping with a lifelong illness or disability. Or any one of the completely natural life stages which we’ll all encounter as we progress along this journey called life.
I’m fully aware that I too participate in the use of ‘mental health’ labelling myself. Perhaps it has become the only way the world feels safe talking about the experience of being human. It contains all the difficulty somehow in two little words. Mental. Health. Wrapping it up neatly into one generic package, which will only be properly identified when we dare to unwrap it and have a good look inside.
So, could it be time to start talking differently about mental health going forwards?
Part of being human is to take time to think. To reflect. To ponder life itself; our role, our place and our purpose here on earth. The bustle of bulging achievements we thrust ourselves towards on an hourly, daily and season by season basis – often, with little or no rest – can dilute or dissolve any real, deep thinking into flurries of fleeting thoughts, which are easily dismissed in our magical moments of peace.
I’m a quiet campaigner for allowing and expressing our feelings as human beings. Yes, all of them! The shame, the blame, the anger and grief, the downright disgust or the sorrows and pain of life. I acknowledge and celebrate the good stuff too! Joy, happiness, love and connection. But those are so much more acceptable in society; easier to talk about, to champion, to write about. It’s the ugly stuff that’s harder to hold, to love, to honour and to make sense of, sometimes.
Yet, when we dare to experience and welcome the ugly into our repertoire, seeing ugly’s gifts, understanding and valuing the messages the not so pretty parts of life bring into our lives, paradoxically, we not only get to see more of our beauty, we also learn (and see) that we can – and have – endured.
We may have been tossed into the fire by life, but we have been transformed and strengthened in the process.
I believe that when we accept, untangle and honour all that we feel on the inside we’re not only helping ourselves, we are helping the collective evolve too.
Honesty; the Best Policy?
As the famous Rocky speech starts “Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows….”
Life can be a frustrating, lonely and sad existence at times. We all struggle with both our power and our powerlessness; making the most of the life we’ve been gifted or wondering whether we’re just wasting it. We all end up navigating storms we don’t believe we ordered. Sometimes we fear that life is racing past. Other times, the hours, days and weeks drag on as we wish for those changes to manifest ’cause they’ve been in our hearts for too long.
“This too shall pass” is a wonderful Persian adage which I refer to often in my own life. It’s true. Everything passes. Nothing stays the same. With help from others and by gaining new perspectives, we can always see our progress, even if it was cleverly hidden under the metaphorical bushes a long time ago. Things, feelings and events pass. And within that, those things – or some-thing – always changes even if ‘that something’ is someone else’s change which has forced us to change.
As well as the clients I work with, one of the things that helps me personally is being honest about how I really feel and what I’m currently going through. Splitting off the rough stuff only serves to deny these important parts of being human to further serve de-compartmentalisation, rather than journeying towards wholeness.
Everything we experience is important when ‘being human’, with no one thing being narrowed down to a simple, catch-all label. Each of us think complex thoughts, ponder our spiritual beliefs, feel the whoosh of the whole spectrum of feelings and emotions. We are all unique, yet we are one race and share so many similarities. There are billions of us on the planet. When we work on accepting and processing our own personal challenges, I genuinely believe we are simultaneously helping others with theirs, too.
Sharing my thoughts today may help someone (you?) to feel better about your thoughts, your life or, dare I say it, your mental health. That new awareness in you will be shared throughout your relationships in your own unique ways as you go about your daily life.
This is how it works. Step by step, day by day, one insight at a time.
As the courageous Maya Angelou said “All great achievements require time.” So, whether you believe you’re in good mental health or you’re experiencing ‘poor’ mental health right now, remember that you are enough. You are being human. Your feelings and experiences – yes, all of them – are normal. And remembering that ‘this too shall pass’ may provide some comfort today, even if the experience you’re having is not quite what you ordered.
If you’d like to get in touch and talk about being human (or anything else that’s on your mind!) you can drop me a line, in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org or via