Hands holding brain with positive mental health

What is positive mental health (and do you have it?)

It’s October, and in many places round the world this month is designated to raising awareness on mental health. As a positive mental health coach I think that’s a good thing. We’ve decided to focus this month on positive mental health, too.

Statistics on mental health abound, and some of them are quite scary. As we learned last month, far too many of us live with distress in our lives. One in five Australians experience a mental illness each year, and 14% of us suffer from anxiety. All these numbers are cause for concern, given they indicate a lack of positive mental health in many of us.

Positive mental health vs mental health

As I researched this topic, I was reminded how many different attitudes there are to mental health. Google the quotes or the websites and you’ll find many voices, loudly claiming their equal rights as depressed/anxious/mentally ill people. Governments and other agencies somberly work hard to help us deal with those challenging issues well. I applaud them. Mental health deserves to be taken seriously and all people treated with dignity.

But I also hope we can learn to build positive mental health. You see, for the last few decades, more and more research is turning the mental health question on its head. Instead of asking and learning about the sickness end of the spectrum, it’s looking at what the people who’re thriving are doing well. ‘How can we learn from that?’ positive mental health is asking. How can we together learn to be well?

I’m all for RUOK? Days and ‘ItsOkNotToBeOk’ campaigns, but wouldn’t it be nice to find ways to lift beyond that?

What positive mental health isn’t

Being Aussies, some of us will need to fight a strong desire to roll our eyes and make cynical comments about weirdos who think life can be all happiness and light. That’s not what this is about. Positive mental health looks at how to live well in the midst of the challenges, set backs and put downs life throws at us. It considers the attitudes and practices that build resilience and encourages hope. And it finds ways to build in the life skills that help you – and others! – succeed.

In other words, the positive end of mental health wants to enable us to live the better life, be personally well and navigate change with skill. Doesn’t that appeal to you? It does to me….! And it explains why I reckon it’s worth thinking about.

Just imagine how the world would be if we could learn to deal with and address our stress, low self-esteem, negemos and other challenging parts of life. How much better if our kids had healthy approaches to friendships, problem solving and learning?

Key concepts within positive mental health

Theory’s all very fine, but what are some underlying concepts that determine how healthy the state of thought life is? Well, here’s five I consider key to start with:

1. Thinking and feeling in tandem

There are people whose lives are dragged round by the emotions they’re constantly experiencing, and others who ‘don’t do feelings’ at all! Neither end of the spectrum leads you to a good life. Learning to heed our feelings but balance that out with some considered thinking’s the only way to get through life and be able to celebrate our humanity. Taming the Negemos (our term for those bad feelings we struggle with) is necessary to using them well. And not being controlled by them’s critical to sane and healthy living.

2. We, not me

A ‘me’ saturated culture encourages us to hold onto a childish and competitive ideal: that of life completely rotating round you. It’s not workable. Not only does it make you miserable, it creates mini wars with others in your world. Which leaves behind trails of hurt and anger. And other unhealthy mental realities.

You matter a great deal. But so do I. And we need each other. Accepting this reality and learning to live it benefits everyone, including you. If you want to feel better, work on your relationships.

3. Choose to give attention to the positives

What’s the difference between people who’re happy and those who aren’t? Do they have more money? Better things happening to them?

No, according to research they simply pay better attention to the good things going on in their lives. You see, we also know from science we carry what’s called a negativity bias. That is, we all naturally pay more attention to what’s going wrong than what’s going right. Unfortunately, unless we can break the habit we simply wind ourselves further and further into a black mood.

That’s a key reason you’ll find gratitude exercises so widely used and encouraged. Practicing being grateful forces us to deliberately turn our focus to the better side of life.

4. Paddle your own canoe

Several of these ideas start to overlap each other, but another key idea for positive mental health’s that you let yourself grow up and take responsibility for your own life.

So many of us would rather someone else managed the hard things. However, once past your mid-teens, that job swings over to you. While it’s convenient to let others bail you out of silly decisions and ignore your bad behaving, it does you no good.

Stop blaming others for what happens. It’s your life. Your thoughts and your feelings are yours. Manage them. (If you don’t know how, learn. It’s good you’re here!) And learn how to succeed. For every action (or non-action) there’s a consequence. If you don’t like the consequence, don’t do the action.

5. Be realistic

Sometimes people with poor mental health swing in this direction and think it should be magic. It’s not. You’ll not learn to be happy, manage your self-esteem, stress or negative feelings by swallowing a pill. Even good change takes time and effort. You’ll always be on a journey.

You’re also a human being and not a machine. Neither are you a god. That means you’re going to make mistakes and struggle sometimes. Embrace it. A great life’s found in the middle of the challenges, once you understand the boundaries.

Do you have it?

Nobody – myself and all other advocates included – manages to live with positive thinking permanently in our heads. We all have days we’re tempted to give up, stay in bed and fall apart. Numb the pain. Or yell at someone, or sabotage ourselves in some way. So the fact you’re sometimes overwhelmed or struggling doesn’t exclude you from having or growing your own positive mental health.

Because of that, perhaps the best way to figure out where you’re at is to think through how much of your life’s controlled by negativity or passivity and how much of it’s determined by you choosing to struggle or live looking on the bright side. On balance, are you happier and more stable now than you were a few years ago? Can you catch your downward spirals a little faster and move out of them more quickly? If your answer’s yes, you’re on a good path. Of course, it’s a lifelong adventure so don’t ever stop learning and tweaking.

Moving forwards

We’re going to spend the whole month thinking about positive mental health and how we can build it. So today’s post is really an introduction. However, there’s a few ways you might like to proceed from here. Firstly, we encourage you to seek professional help if you’re experiencing high levels of negativity or mental angst. There are good mental health practitioners out there who can help you move forwards. If you’re unsure where to begin, the government Head to Health website’s a great place to start. Or try your local GP.

Secondly, an easy way to be empowering yourself is to sign up to our blog. We’re on about you benefiting! And since it’s focus is your personal wellbeing and positive change, it’s a way of constantly but easily and gently building your awareness of the latest thinking and practices on positive mental health.

A third option would be to check out some of the training at Head.Set.Go!, our sister site (which we run separately cos we don’t like to be constantly ‘selling’ here), or to at least join in the conversations on either Facebook or Instagram. And finally, you might choose to help us with some research on the topic by filling in this 5 minute survey. Or you can do any combination of the above!!

Thanks. I’m looking forward to us helping each other learn all we can about positive ways to think and live well.

Sharon