Mental Health: A Comprehensive Guide

Mental health. Two words that have been tossed around so much in the past few years they’re almost at buzzword status. We know mental health is important and that we should pay attention to it. But what is it exactly?

Can you define it? Do you know how you can take care of your own mental health, and support your loved ones? If you said no, don’t stress. We’ve got you covered. Let’s talk about what mental health is, how to be there for ourselves, and for others.

Mental Health VS. Mental Illness

This may seem obvious, but mental health and mental illness are often confused. They’re sometimes used interchangeably when they definitely shouldn’t be — because they’re not the same thing.

Mental health is concerned with our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, which includes our emotional, social, and psychological well being. Mental health is affected by many different factors, like:

  • Biology and genetics: All that science-y stuff. Everything from your genetic predisposition to mental illness, to your baseline levels of happiness.
  • Individual environment: Our life events can affect our mental state. Things like going through a breakup, stressing about a difficult test coming up, or getting into a fight with a friend may all have an impact.
  • Culture: The culture you were raised in, your ethnic background, your sexuality, and how accepting your environment is of all those things can play a role too.
  • Geography: The physical spaces we live in. For example, those living in rural areas have a much harder time getting access to mental health services than those in big cities.

Mental illness on the other hand, is a cluster of symptoms or behavioral patterns that cause significant distress or impairment to an individual.

In North America, 1 out of 5 people will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. So while mental illness isn’t universal, mental health is. We all have mental health and it’s important to take care of it.

Now here’s the kicker: you can have a mental illness and still be in a positive state of mental health. Likewise, you can have no diagnosable mental illness and be in a negative state of mental health. It all depends on the factors we’ve outlined above, as well as the support you’re receiving.

Support and help

The state of your mental health can’t be put into a box or seen in black in white, because it’s on a spectrum. It can run from being in a positive state, to stressed, can decline as far as into a crisis — and everything in between. The type of support you’ll need is dependent on your state.

If you find yourself to be just a little stressed, you may want to amp up your self care or turn to social supports like friends or family. If you find you’re significantly stressed, it may be time to reach out for professional help.

You can do that by seeking out community supports, talking to your doctor, calling an anonymous helpline, or setting up an appointment with a counsellor or therapist. When it comes to finding a counsellor, platforms like Wellin5 can connect you with a qualified professional that can address your specific needs and stressors. If you find your mental health starts to dip into an emergency state, it’s critical to reach out to services like 911.

What’s an emergency state? If there’s any risk of imminent harm to yourself or someone else, it’s time to get help. People tend to downplay the need for emergency services when it comes to mental health — but it’s better to be safe than sorry. It could save a life.

Taking care of yourself

In the age of Instagram, self-care has been painted to be about lavish bubble baths, ‘treating yourself’ to an expensive gift, or an unhealthy meal that’ll make you feel better for about 2 seconds. By definition, self-care is any activity that we intentionally do to take care of our physical, emotional, and mental health. So, sure, it can include the bubble baths and gifts from you to you. But that’s not all it is. It can also be things like:

  • Eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising — which can boost serotonin levels in the brain, leading to improved mood and a decrease in levels of anxiety and depression.
  • Spending time with friends and family who make you feel good.
  • Setting boundaries and saying ‘No’ to things you don’t want to do, or don’t feel you have the capacity for.
  • Writing, painting, dancing, knitting… whatever creative activity you’re into!
  • Meditating.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure it’s right for you. Meaning, you don’t have to participate in self-care activities that you see all over social media. As long as it’s enjoyable to you, it’s filling you back up, and it’s not harmful to yourself or others — go for it! After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Supporting others

This one can be tough. People are so unique that it can be hard to gauge exactly what they need from you when they’re struggling. Some want advice. Others are just looking to vent. Luckily, Jack.org, one of Canada’s leading mental health organizations recently launched a website to help you navigate through these difficult conversations. They’ve outlined 5 golden rules for reaching out to a friend who’s struggling with their mental health.

  • Say what you see: Starting a conversation about mental health can be nerve wracking. But it doesn’t have to be. Break the ice by mentioning changes you’ve noticed in your friend and ask if they’re doing okay.
  • Show you care: People can get defensive. But if you approach with empathy and kindness, it creates a safe space for your loved ones to open up. Let them know you’re asking because you care.
  • Hear them out: Listen before you speak. Often times, people aren’t looking for advice, but simply want a non-judgemental listening ear. Make sure the conversation is balanced, and support where you can.
  • Know your role: Maybe you’re not the best person to support them in this time. You’re not a therapist or counselor, but you can help connect them to one. Which leads us to…
  • Connect them to help: Finding resources can be tough, confusing, and a little discouraging. This is your time to support your loved ones while they navigate the system. Go with them to the doctor’s appointment. Sit with them while they call a helpline. Or help them choose a counsellor that fits their needs. WellIn5 can help with that, and take the guesswork out of finding the right counsellor.

Bottom line

Mental health is complicated. And no guide, pamphlet, or listicle will ever fully capture the nuances that humans go through on their mental health journeys. The best thing we can do is keep learning. Everyone’s mental health is unique to them — and riding the ups and downs will look different for everybody. Tune in and listen to your body. It’ll often tell you what it needs. For more resources on mental health, check out more articles on WellIn5’s blog, or start your journey to better mental health by connecting with a counsellor today.

Sarina Arefzadeh is a Vancouver-based content marketer, mental health advocate, and pop culture enthusiast. She brings her education in psychology and sociology to unpack topics like tech, gender, mental health, and online life. She’s a speaker with Jack.org, regularly visiting schools to talk to students about their mental health, what it means, and how they can be there for themselves and their peers. Connect with Sarina on LinkedIn, Twitter, or by email.