On Mental Health: what about Wellness?

As our society continues to progress, more and more attention (thankfully) is being given to the issue of “mental health.” But sometimes it can feel like an all-encompassing buzzword – like we don’t really know what we’re referring to when talk about mental health as an issue. It seems that much of the terminology around this topic is used differently depending on the speaker. They could be talking about illness, they could be talking about trauma, or they could be talking about simply being human. I want to talk about the difference between the idea of “mental health” and the idea of “wellness,” a concept that focuses on the wholeness of a person – something I deeply believe in – rather than what many would describe as deficits or “symptoms.”

I grew up being taught that I should be ashamed of my emotions, that they are a burden to others, and a sign of inherent weakness in myself. And the large majority of my clients relay the same belief about themselves, in a various ways. Many share that they feel isolated, like no one else understands or experiences pain like they do, because no one talks about it. My clients say things like, “everyone else seems to have it all figured out, so something is obviously wrong with me.” This inevitably leads to a spiral of shame, self-hatred, and fear of reaching out to family or friends for help. This breaks my heart every time I hear it.

It seems clear that we took a wrong turn somewhere on the road towards emotional intelligence in our society. We blame a broken “mental health system” for the unbearable number of mass shootings, exploit “crazy people” in the media by criticizing their lack of “coping skills,” all the while advertising and dispensing psychiatric drugs to the mainstream, telling the public that their struggles are a problem that can and should be fixed with a pill. For some reason, we won’t dare get comfortable with – or, gasp! actually VALUE – our universal emotional experiences that connect us all, and that provide wisdom, insight, and richness to being human. We won’t acknowledge that suffering is actually just a part of life that we all endure, that it’s not something to be ashamed of, avoided, or suppressed. And we definitely forget to mention that it isn’t because something is wrong with us. This, to me, is a serious and damaging oversight. And probably the number one reason so many of us are stunningly depressed and anxious.

With this lack of honest dialogue, how do we know what we mean when we say that mental health needs to be “addressed” in our culture? It’s no wonder there is so much talk and not much movement. Currently, “mental health” is defined by the “absence of illness,” and the ability to function “normally” in the day to day in the circumstances and culture in which you are immersed. In our culture today, “normal” means not asking for help, or even showing if you are struggling, likely out of fear of rejection or disconnection. (Side note: this is totally culturally relative; what we describe as “mentally ill” in mainstream U.S. culture might qualify as “spiritually enlightened,” “gifted,” or a number of other things somewhere else. Just saying.) So we are all expected to function “normally,” as loosely defined above, while neglecting to consider or openly discuss the various factors that might be deeply impacting our wellbeing, such as socio-economic status, trauma (direct AND intergenerational), race, gender identity, pressures of gender constructs, sexual orientation, physical and cognitive ability, access to education, genetic predisposition and family history, privilege (or lack there-of), cultural standards of beauty, the list goes on. And what about how it felt to be bullied as a kid, the shame you felt when you got fired from your job, the self-hatred that arose after someone told you you were “fat,” the difficult experience you had in the foster care system, the loneliness you felt while struggling to make friends, your disappointment when your mom forgot your 16th birthday, the grief of going through a painful divorce, the stress of having a new baby, the recent loss of your family dog, or the indefinite number of other moments in your life that affected you?

The bottom line: we are all humans with unique, complex experiences and backgrounds that shape us, and none of us is exempt from struggle or pain. We notoriously forget this, because we are busy comparing ourselves to each other, getting stuck on the longing to define, organize, and make sense of what it means to be mentally healthy or unhealthy. Sadly, in doing that, we miss a lot of really, really important things. Primarily, we miss out on connecting over our common humanity that allows us to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and to feel less alone.

So, returning to the concept of “mental health,” it makes sense that we continue to feel helpless and disempowered. We all know it’s important, because we all feel it. But we don’t know where to go with it after that. The current message is that “healthy = symptom free.” So what we believe right now is that we should strive to hide or ignore our pain (I guess, to at least appear as healthy as possible?), rather than accept it with warmth and curiosity… which is what it really needs.

One piece that might provide some clarity and direction, which is missing from the existing medical jargon around mental health, is the concept of feeling “well,” not simply symptom-free. (Another side note: I don’t mean to minimize the idea of “symptom-free.” But I think we get confused by this idea. Of course, I absolutely believe that at a foundational level, we should be striving to operate at an adequate level of functioning to meet our basic needs. The problem is that when we stop there, we set a very low bar for the definition of “healthy,” and it isn’t sustainable.) One of the major reasons I chose to study counseling rather than psychology or social work is the counseling field’s emphasis on wellness in the work we do. I can’t reiterate enough how important this is to me. In the counseling wellness approach, the focus shifts from treating a diagnosis or “disease,” to working with the whole person to find their real, inherent capacity for health, keeping in mind that suffering is actually just part of being human.

So, what does “wellness” actually mean? Wellness goes beyond merely getting by or surviving; it is the feeling of being grounded and whole, and equipped to navigate your life (the inevitable good and bad parts) in a way that is congruent with your values and the person you want to be. Further, it is the capacity to integrate all components of your life (mind, body, work, relationships, spirituality, etc.), so that they all work together to engage you, stimulate you, and push you to grow towards your full potential. And, lastly, it is the acceptance (even embracement) of the fact that this process is not linear, not always pleasant, and never actually ends.

This next part is crucial. Wellness does not mean that you do not experience pain. We are vulnerable and taking risks constantly just by being alive, so suffering will happen. Suffering, however it manifests, is not an illness. Often, once we honestly recognize that fact, we have a much easier time finding relief from it, being authentic and comfortable in our skin, and having genuine empathy for others. Wellness means you are equipped to engage with your pain, understand it, learn from it, and move through it. It means you can access internal resources (self-awareness, self-compassion, self-trust, and self-worth) when you need them – or ideally, all the time. It means you can tap into your own agency when you want to make a change, and you can still live intentionally and purposefully within circumstances that can’t be changed. It means that you truly allow yourself to feel joy, gratitude and love when it is present in your life. It does not mean you are always “happy,” but it does mean you are pretty “awake.”

The reality, whether we like it or not, is that we experience a lot of different emotions in a single day. One of my favorite teachers, Bonnie Badenoch, once said, “if I ever have a day that I’m happy for all of the hours I’m awake, I wasn’t paying attention.” The goal cannot be to feel happy all the time. Not only does that eliminate the ability to have real empathy (something that opens up true connection with others, and gives our lives incredible meaning and depth), it is an unreachable goal that only fosters more of a sense of failure and loneliness within us. Wellness is the resilience to be with what is, and to trust your inherent wisdom (yes, you have it) to arise from there.

There are many ways for people to build and maintain a sense of wellness within themselves, and my job as a therapist is to support people in doing just that. In future posts, I will continue to discuss wellness and other related topics in further depth. My goal with this blog is to have a venue where I can formulate and articulate some of my ideas and theories on the complexities of the human condition, and share about the work that I love to do. I look forward to seeing how it evolves over time, and how I grow in my professional and personal life through writing.

And I will conclude with this wonderful quote from the late, great Mr. Rogers: