Sean Slade

Mentally Healthy

National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, May 3, 2011

Today is the 5th annual National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, established and promoted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The Awareness Day provides a platform for national and local organizations to highlight an aspect of children's health that too often does not get the attention, focus, or funding it deserves.

Mental health may in fact be the one remaining "health" that stills holds somewhat negative connotations when discussed or highlighted. Simply Google the phrase "mental health," and the results indicate that this particular phrase may still be the "health" outsider.

For example, when you Google "physical health," you get a number of positive statements and connotations:

  • Maintaining the best possible physical health has been a gospel ideal throughout the ages.
  • Physical health is an essential building block of life.
  • What is physical health? When your body is in good condition, like physically fit.

Google "social and emotional health," and the results are still fairly positive:

  • Read expert advice and follow these tips to help your child stay on an even keel.
  • Mission is to strengthen children's social and emotional health.
  • Healthy social and emotional development involves the capacity of children to experience, regulate, and express emotions.

However, in a Google search for "mental health," the results fall into the negative realm:

  • Looking for information on where I could place my sister.
  • Mental health disorders affect an estimated 22 percent of American adults each year.
  • Gives you comprehensive mental health and mental illness information on topics like Depression, Bipolar, Suicide, Anxiety, and Schizophrenia.

There is an assumption across society that when people talk about "mental health," they are talking about "mental illness." It is viewed as an issue that people experience, as opposed to a health continuum. But just as one can be physically healthy or unhealthy, one can also be mentally healthy or unhealthy. Just as we can view being socially and emotionally healthy as positive—something to strive for—we should also be promoting the idea of everyone being mentally healthy.

What do we mean by "mentally healthy"? It's not just the absence of mental health issues—though that should also be on the mental health continuum; it's being mentally strong and resilient and having the skills and support to deal with stressful issues when they arise.

Where do these skills and supports come from? They are developed internally and are provided by our environments. Bonnie Benard's research on environmental protective factors in her book Resiliency: What We Have Learned indicates that schools, families, and communities can help in the development of the individual's mental health. This can be by:

  • Modeling, teaching, and displaying empathy;
  • Meeting the child's developmental needs for belonging and connection;
  • Ensuring the child has a connection to a responsible (and responsive) adult;
  • Ensuring that adults display respect, listen, and pay personalized attention;
  • Teaching innate resilience; and
  • Creating and sustaining a caring climate. (p. 121)

Children themselves can be helped in their mental health by

  • Learning problem-solving techniques;
  • Being encouraged to develop positive self-image;
  • Developing teamwork and social skills; and
  • Acknowledging their emotions. (p. 119)

However, as I alluded to at the start of this post, perhaps the biggest step we can make is in realizing and vocalizing that mental health is not mental illness and that just as people can be healthy physically, they can also be healthy mentally.

Changing this belief or changing the semantics around "mental health" is probably the biggest hurdle we have yet to overcome. So as we listen and watch what happens today across the country, let's at least hear the phrase for what it is—mental health, not mental illness.


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