What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about mental health? For many, the words mental health bring to mind mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. You have probably heard mental health and mental illness used interchangeably. However, as mental health enters the forefront of conversation, it is important to understand mental health ≠ mental illness. 

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is not something you can lose, earn, achieve, or forfeit. Like physical health, we all have mental health! Just as physical health exists on a spectrum that fluctuates from day to day, so does mental health. At times you may feel physically run down or under the weather. While you may not have a diagnosable illness, you would recognize that your physical health is poor. Likewise, you can experience poor mental health, times when you are distracted, stressed, or anxious, without having a mental illness.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental health is the foundation of our cognitive, behavioral, and emotional wellbeing. It touches nearly every aspect of life, shaping thoughts, emotions, self-perception, worldview, communication, learning, and self-esteem. Diagnosable health conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior are mental illnesses. Often characterized by difficulties functioning in work, social, and family activities, it is necessary to note that these invisible illnesses affect everyone differently. Mental illness has no specific look.

If you know anyone who lives with diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, chances are you know someone who lives with mental illness. More common than the aforementioned chronic conditions, one in five Americans experience mental illness in a given year, and nearly half of all adults (46.6%) will experience mental illness during their lifetime. The most common are anxiety disorders, which affect almost 20% of Americans.

The Mind-Body Connection

During times of physical sickness or injury, you may notice your mental health decline. Experiencing physical ailments can lower your mood, lessen your ability to focus, fog your thinking, and cause you to behave in ways different than if you were completely healthy. The mind and body are inextricably connected. Our physical health impacts our mental health, and our mental health influences our physical health. Studies corroborate this connection. Those with heart disease are 20-30% more likely to experience depression, and depression itself is a risk factor for heart disease. 

Protecting Your Mental Health

One of the best ways to protect your mental health is by fortifying your physical health. Just as physically healthy people recover more quickly from illness, mentally healthy people recover more quickly from stress, trauma, and setbacks. Maintaining healthy habits like eating nutritious meals, drinking plenty of water, avoiding excessive drinking or smoking, exercising for 30 minutes each day, and getting enough sleep helps support mental health. Taking care of your body bolsters your mental health, and it is easier to maintain healthy habits when you are mentally well. It’s a positive feedback loop you can choose to reinforce!   

While there are ways you can protect your mental health, it does not guarantee that you will never experience mental illness. Just as you cannot wish away a broken bone or cancer, you cannot wish away mental illness. If you are struggling with your mental health, asking for help is a brave step you can take towards healing. 

Morgen Abbas is the Digital Media and Communications Specialist for Employee and Family Resources (EFR). Check out more blogs by EFR here: https://efr.org/blogs/