Mental Health is Health

This week has been Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week. I’ve seen a lot of excitement about it online – there has never been a time in history where so much emphasis has been put on our health.  That said, a Google search of “health” provides an overwhelming amount of information on nutrition, disease, fitness, weight loss, and anti- aging.  What doesn’t come up is mental health. Mental health is so critical to living a good, healthy life – and it needs to take its important place in conversations around health. 

It’s important that we are shining a light on mental illness in our society and educating ourselves on the fact that one in five Canadians will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime. This information, coupled with people coming forward to share their stories, has done a tremendous amount to raise awareness, reduce stigma and direct funding towards the treatment of mental illness. 

Whether we suffer from a serious mental illness or not, mental health is a key component in our overall health.  If we are not mentally healthy, we are not healthy. I am somebody who has put health on the top of my priority list for pretty much my entire life.  As an athlete, I have experienced the extreme of what a body is capable of, and I have also trained my mind to be tenacious and my spirit to be resilient. I know what it is like to be in great shape physically, but also what it is like to come back from pregnancy, from devastating injury, from multiple complex surgeries.  I have been in amazing shape, okay shape, and even in bad shape – but the strength and fitness of my body has always been a priority and something I could count on.

For the majority of the first four decades of my life, I was pretty much oblivious to my mental health.  I had my ups and downs, my hormonal changes, even significant crises of confidence. And you know what? I never really thought of any of this as related to mental health. Until one day, all the ways I sought to cope with a busy, public life stopped working.  The myriad of ways I had learned to cope with my past, to deal with the daily stresses of travelling and raising kids, the way I had mentally spun disappointments and betrayals became coping mechanisms that no longer worked.  I slid into a depression with intermittent periods of rage intense enough to finally motivate me to seek help.  I was in my early forties and experiencing ill health for the first time in my life.  The ill health wasn’t physical, it was mental, but it affected my whole body as it seemed to suck every cell of energy I had, making my entire life lacklustre.  This was a time in my life that I was sick, and I worked many different angles to fight the illness and be well again.

Today, it seems like a long time ago that I was in the dark pit of pain and confusion.  Today I still suffer from anxiety and depression, but I do not consider myself ill and I work to stay on the positive side of that health continuum.  I see it like this in my life.  Mental health is a sliding scale.  Sometimes I am at one end of the scale, battling off personal demons, working to balance my chemistry, finding ways to cope with waves of despair, and at other times I am working the other end, feeling empowered by new ideas and energized by people, and grateful for the abundance in my life.  Even while working this scale, I consider myself healthy. 

Here is a physical parallel.  I am a strong athletic woman who is in excellent physical health.  Sometimes I get colds, sometimes I get the flu, once every few winters, I even get pneumonia.  None of these illnesses make me feel like I am in poor health, like I am physically an unwell person, I just know I need to battle for a while and I will end up feeling good again. It is helpful for me to think about my mental health in the same terms.  When I am in a crisis, when menopause has affected my moods and pulled me into lethargy, I know I will get through this and be my own mentally healthy self again.  I internally identify myself as mentally healthy, even though I know I have struggled with anxiety and depression.

How is this helpful for me? It is helpful because holding an internal image of what good mental health looks like, recognizing in my body how good mental health feels like has helped me when my health has not been as good.  I find the idea of mental health and the pursuit of it empowering – just as I find the pursuit of good physical health a challenge and a responsibility.

I work towards my physical health in countless ways from seeing a Doctor, investing a naturopathic medicine, exercising daily, and eating cleanly. I also invest in my mental health, no longer taking it for granted since it grounded my life to a halt in my forties. I do yoga, practice meditation, I write, I find motivation and fulfilment in my work, I spend time with friends, family and my beloved dogs.

I also see a counsellor as part of my mental health plan just as I see a physiotherapist as a necessary part to my intense training. I keep tabs on my chemistry, especially at a time in my life, where hormones levels are dropping at a rapid rate and affecting my mood.  All of this is the work of being mentally healthy.

Most of us don’t value our health until a crisis has us living the reality of ill health.  Having experienced traumatic physical injury and it’s devastating long term consequences, I never take my physical health for granted.  I have learned to guard my mental health just as tightly. Mental health is a continuum for me and I prefer to spend as much time as possible in the lightness. Like many of us, the darkness still comes, I accept that too, but I also look towards the light.