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Towards a Broader Definition of Mental Health

4 minute read

I meet with people who are going through one of the most – if not the most – challenging times of their lives. I am amazed at how my clients continue to work, attend school and raise their children while their lives are changing so rapidly. But I’m typically too busy working on their legal issues to give as much thought as I should to how they do it.

How do they do it? How do people bounce back from a crisis?

I recently attended a thought-provoking presentation by Dr. Julie McCarthy at the Lerners Women's Symposium. The topic was resilience, which Dr. McCarthy defined as the “psychological capacity to rebound, to “bounce back’ from adversity, uncertainty, conflict, failure or even positive change, progress, or increased responsibility.”

Over the course of Dr. McCarthy's discussion, I learned that having increased resiliency has tremendous benefits, generating higher levels of health, energy, immune functioning, cardiovascular functions, works satisfaction, life satisfaction and, yes, even productivity and profitability.

Dr. McCarthy discussed real-life tactics, such as focusing attention on the present moment, actively breathing and mentally disengaging, all of which promote resilience.

Thinking back on Dr. McCarthy's presentation, I was struck by how unique it was. A room full of professionals was being taught how to focus their attention, how to breathe properly and how to mentally disengage. We were being taught how to increase our own capacity to bounce back from adversity. And we were being taught how this directly related to our health.

Health is, of course, an extremely popular topic for discussion. But the discussion, in my experience at least, usually centers around physical health. We talk about recipes, about diets, about exercise programs and gym memberships. We talk about fit bits and kettle bells. We talk about smoothies and the relationship between the consumption of red wine and cardiovascular health.

In other words, we talk about physical health. And when we talk about physical health, we mean the improvement of our health. We mean physical fitness or weight control.

But when we talk about mental health, if we talk about it at all, we typically mean mental illness. Mental health awareness usually means being aware that many of us suffer from a mental illness. There are numerous campaigns and television commercials which remind us that just because we can't see the effects of a mental illness the way that we often can see the effects of a physical illness does not mean that the mental illness is not real. The purpose of these campaigns is to remove the stigma of mental illness and to broaden public support and personal networks for those who suffer from mental illness.

While raising public awareness and changing society's perception of mental illness is critical, Dr. McCarthy's presentation reminded me that we can work to improve our mental health just as surely as we can work on our physical health. The first step is to recognize the importance of preventative mental health and non-therapeutic mental fitness. We need to get as comfortable telling our peers and social networks that we are working on our resiliency as we are saying that we are working out our trapezoids.

It is important to recognize that the kind of mental fitness activities which Dr. McCarthy is talking about are as tangible and practical as running on a treadmill or doing a pull-up. For example, disengaging might mean avoiding talking shop while socializing, or letting your mind wander while relaxing, instead of thinking about the problem which needs to be solved. Practicing gratitude can be done by writing down three good things which happened in a day.

For many of us, the word “meditation” might conjure up an image of a monk in a temple, or Kane from Kung-Fu. But the reality is that meditation is practiced by millions of North Americans and can provide us with concrete mental and physical health benefits in return for a few minutes of our time each day.

I encourage my clients and my colleagues to join me in working on our resiliency. This can be a challenging time of year for many people, particularly for people who are dealing with the emotional and financial struggles or a family law matter. Bouncing back from that kind of adversity is easier said than done, but it's something that we can – and must – work on.

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Jordan McKie

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