I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about mental health, so I should be an expert by now, right? Mainly I troubleshoot and problem-solve, but what am I trying to achieve? What state of mental health do I strive for? What does mental health even mean?
Let’s start with what mental health is NOT.
-Obviously, it’s unrealistic to expect to be happy and joyful all the time, even though that would be nice. Maintaining perfect happiness is impossible, and therefore not the definition of mental health.
-Even though people with mental illnesses are often considered “strange” by society, mental health certainly doesn’t mean conforming to what is expected of us— in fact, that’s a fast track to mental illness.
-We also can’t strive to be totally and 100% ourselves, as many of our baser instincts must be tempered for the good of the people around us.
The definition of mental health, to me, is emotional flexibility. It’s being happy when there’s a personal reason to be happy and being sad when there’s a personal reason to be sad, and likewise for anger. These reasons may be very unique and not sanctioned by society (many of my happy-making interests are non-standard or “weird”) but they are valid reasons nonetheless, and shaped by a person’s history and personality.
Often, my emotions aren’t flexible. I was so depressed throughout my childhood and adolescence that I first felt happiness, first felt a positive feeling at all, at age 22. That would be enough to qualify many times over for “bad mental health,” but instead of feeling hopeful about the future, the experience left me even more depressed. I was suicidal in the weeks afterwards because I couldn’t fathom that other people got to feel that way much, much more frequently. They weren’t dying inside at their own birthday parties, blowing out the candles and wishing for an end to it all. They weren’t self-harming to get through the day. They weren’t hiding their emotions until they could be alone to cry. By comparison, my first taste of positivity felt like a gift from the divine.
(Even in Bipolar Disorder, emotions aren’t flexible more than the phase that person is in. If they’re manic, they’re going to interpret every event through the lens of their mania. If they’re depressed, their outlook will be depressed too. Borderline Personality Disorder, also famous for emotional highs and lows, is not true flexibility either— many times, people with BPD experience distorted emotions that are way off base for the situation, either in scope or in type.)
Now, as I get healthier, I experience happiness more often. I’m also learning to welcome sadness and anger. I’m no longer depressed 100% of the time. I’m striving towards emotional flexibility, and I’m getting there!