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May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the first full week of October is Mental Illness Awareness Week. 

Many people use the terms mental health and mental illness interchangeably however they are quite different.  We all have mental health. Our mental health is how we are psychologically and emotionally. It is how we think, feel, act and present to the world.

When we are mentally healthy we function well,  we can handle problems, make decisions, and develop healthy relationships. We have good days and not-so-good days. Mental illness occurs when our mental health is compromised, the bad days far outweigh the good days, and we struggle to function in our daily lives. Mental illness covers a wide range of conditions including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Mental health is not the absence or opposite of mental illness. In fact, an individual living with a mental illness diagnosis can be mentally healthy and an individual can have poor mental health and not have a mental illness.  Both mental health and mental illness are states of being that are on a spectrum, best understood as separate dimensions and both need to be addressed.

As May is Mental Health Awareness Month I would like to address mental health and a few things we can do to maintain high levels of mental health. We all can build mentally healthier lives but many of us do not know how to do it. By focusing on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we can learn to let go of mental habits that are holding us back and learn new healthier habits.  We need to believe we can change and that making a change is worth it.  Take an inventory of your “bad mental habits” and consider how you might replace them with the following “good mental habits”.

Practice Gratitude

Rather than focusing on the things  you “have” to do, notice the things you “get” to do because of the good and positive things in your life.  They may be big things or little things.  Write them down on a piece of paper or in a notebook.  People who practice gratitude are happier and experience less depression.

Create a positive routine but be flexible

Routines can get us through the day and help us maintain both our mental and physical health. However, an extremely rigid adherence to a routine can lead to problems when life throws us a curve and we need to adapt. We should create comfortable routines and have a plan when flexibility is necessary.

Stop judging yourself and comparing yourself to others

Be mindful of when you are judging yourself or comparing yourself to others. Particularly on social media where it seems like everyone else’s life is perfect (we all have that Facebook friend). Replace the judgement with a positive thought.  The only person you should compare yourself to is who you were yesterday.

Do something for someone else

When we reach out and support another person we secrete hormones that make us happier and improve our mental health.  Putting other people’s needs before our own can reduce stress and improve mood, self-esteem, and happiness. The giving of support is as beneficial to our mental health as the receiving of support.  Win. Win.

Build a peer support network

How many friends do you have that you can call when you are having a crisis? If your answer is none or one, you have some connecting to do.  Loneliness and disconnection are drivers of poor mental health and can lead to mental illness.  This past year has been a difficult time to  connect with others and many of us have found ourselves isolated and lonely. As it becomes safe to engage in the world again make some plans for how you will connect with others. Go forth, masked if necessary, and make some friends. Just think how much fun it will be to eventually find out what they look like!

We all have psychological needs including a sense of belonging and connection, a life of meaning and purpose, being valued by others and hope for a better future.  When we can find ways to meet these needs we have more good days than bad, we are able to function well in our lives and we can cope with the not so good days. We are in a mentally healthy state.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, what step will you take today to improve your mental health?

Lynelle Saunders, CPS
Compassionate Peer Support and Training, LLC

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