Today, I am discussing the definition of mental health and what I believe has gone wrong with how we are addressing mental health today. I offer a simple idea on how we can improve our mental health: making conscious choices, one by one.
What is Mental Health?
The definition of mental health depends significantly on the perspective and training of the experts involved. Experts on mental wellness include medical doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists in the fields of psychology, social work, and counseling.
A conversation with a medical doctor with a specialization in Neurosurgery is likely to have her view on mental health, likely focused on the anatomical aspects the mental health system such as tumors (presence of lack of), amount of grey and white matter, and size and structure of the various regions of the brain. A psychiatrist is likely to mental health from a biochemical standpoint with an emphasis on neurotransmitters and biochemical regulation. A mental health therapist focuses instead on the inner-world of thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. (Note: these descriptions are generalizations).
Even within these segmented groups, we find many divided camps with their definitions of mental health. Within the field of therapists, a juxtaposition exists between the biological perspective and the psychologically oriented. The biological perspective suggests that mental dis-ease has an organic basis. The psychologically oriented believe that mental dis-ease results from early childhood traumas, unresolved issues in the subconscious mind, and current emotional stressors.
What’s Gone Wrong With Our Approach Mental Health
Depression is the most common mental dis-ease, affecting more than twenty-five percent of the American population. However, practitioners who treat depression (and dis-ease in general) are often very busy and quick to resort to prescription drugs. These drugs often do not solve the problem and can lead to long-term consequences. We know from research that depressed adults who took part in aerobic exercise improved as much as those treated with Zoloft. Yet healthcare practitioners continue to prescribe SSRIs and other pharmaceuticals at alarming rates.
The problem of over-prescription of pharmaceutical drugs for mental dis-ease is made worse by the fact that there is no built-in “off-ramp” from this highway of drugs. In other word, patients lack a plan to get off pharmaceuticals. There is no system to slowly taper off medications and allow individuals to return to natural homeostasis; the state in which our bodies are meant to exist.
Non-pharmaceutical treatments, which range from mindfulness and meditation to a variety of lifestyle interventions, are not yet part of the “traditional” approach to helping clients achieve mental health. A 2009 study showed that only 40 percent of clients were counseled to take a simple step of trying exercise at their physician visit. Instead, clients are provided more rapidly with pharmaceuticals, potentially as a way to get them out of the door and avoid practitioner liability in the case of a crisis. The quickness of practitioners to resort to a prescription pad is highlighted by the statistic of a 400% increase in prescriptions written between 1988 and 2008.
Who Can Best Help Us Achieve Optimal Mental Health?
All of the experts mentioned above (medical doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists in the fields of psychology, social work, and counseling) can play an essential role in allowing us to achieve optimal mental health. However, the best-of-the-best takes an integrative approach. An integrative approach looks not just at the anatomical, biochemical, or psychological areas, but views mental health as part of the process of reaching the full potential of human existence. An integrative mental health expert sees us not merely as biochemical machines or a hot mess of emotions. An integrative mental health expert is not afraid to use the word “consciousness.”
What Consciousness Has to Do with Mental Health
Okay, I'll admit. I love Deepak Chopra, but I tend to get a bit lost when he talks about how everything is consciousness. Dr. Bruce Lipton was able to bring me back to planet Earth. He talks simply about cell communication and the idea that our beliefs (and yes our consciousness) control our bodies and lives. Can mental health be best defined as a journey taken by the conscious individual to create a joy‐filled life?
How Can We Optimize our Mental Health?
Our challenges and traumas must be faced rather than swept under the rug. Through consciously facing and processing our wounds and focusing on more life-creating thoughts and beliefs, we create new behaviors that affect our biology in a way that creates mental wellness. An integrative approach suggests that our mental health is not programmed by genes, but is controlled by environmental signals that come from our beliefs and are affected by our daily practices and lifestyle habits.
To optimize mental health, we must feel empowered to change the internal and external environment (even if just a little). We can follow the quantum physics principles which suggest that there is an infinite field of possibilities in every moment. We can then make choices in many moments that add up over time to change the course of our lives. A powerful way to optimize our mental health is to start to make better choices. These choices may seem small at the time, but they add up significantly over time.
Why Choice, and an Individualized Approach, is so Important
As I became more involved in the Brainspotting world (and ultimately became a Certified Brainspotting practitioner), I began to interview mental health practitioners about their approach to supporting clients.
If Brainspotting is a new term for you, please read this blog post which describes how the modality works. If you’d like to listen to some of the interviews I’ve done with Brainspotting practitioners, please check out the many interviews I've done with Brainspotting practitioners (epsidoes in the 60's, 70's and 80's of the Mountain Mantras Podcast.
While this is not surprising, this interview series demonstrated that an individualized approach, with a variety of empowering tools, techniques, and strategies, yields the best results.
The idea of giving clients choice originated from my ten years in practice as a Certified Nutritional Counselor and Executive Director of the nonprofit Nurture. Nurture provides nutrition education to children and families in a fun, hands-on way. Through contact with thousands of Nurture participants, I learned that choice is a critical ingredient in any protocol to create long-lasting behavior change.
Can you make a conscious choice today to improve your mental health?
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Preston, J., & Johnson, J. (2019). Clinical psychopharmacology made ridiculously simple (8th ed.). Miami, FL: MedMaser, Inc.
VanWormer, J. J., Pronk, N. P., & Kroeninger, G. J. (2009). Clinical counseling for physical activity: Translation of a systematic review into care recommendations. Diabetes Spectrum, 22(1), 48-55. doi:10.2337/diaspect.22.1.48