Why Mental Health Matters
Mental health is something that is becoming more talked about and prevalent in our culture. Websites publish a lot of articles about maximizing your happiness and resilience, there are sites devoted to providing tips related to mental health (some good, some bad), mindfulness is becoming a trend both within the mental health field and elsewhere, and so forth. In all these cases, there is a subtle message: mental health matters. Unfortunately, there is less discussion around why mental health matters, which is what I want to address here.
As I have written about before, we cannot think of people from a purely psychological, social, or biological framework if we are going to truly understand the complexity that is the human. Doing so leads to the types of situations that Neil DeGrasse Tyson has expressed frustration over, and doing so prevents us from fully appreciating and understanding the complexity of human life. Instead, we need a comprehensive view, and that necessitates considering mental health among other factors.
To illustrate what I mean, let's start by considering the biological component of our lives. We have organ systems that must synchronize with one another in order to maintain homeostasis (is this bringing back memories of biology class?) which is what allows us to continue living. At any given time, our bodies are coordinating heart rate, blood pressure, sweat production, release of chemicals like cortisol, levels of carbon dioxide, appropriate and controlled cell production, glucose levels, water levels, and many other details. Throughout our bodies are different organ systems that help to make this possible, and our brains are one piece of that puzzle. From a strictly biological standpoint, the importance of neurological health is quite clear, though the bridge from neurological health to mental health (from a more psychological viewpoint) is less obvious. We'll get there.
So we have these biological systems that are all coordinating with one another to allow us to function. Next, we can add our environment to that. In order for our bodies to function, we need some basic necessities: water, carbohydrates, fats, and protein. We get these from our diet, and our diets are largely dependent on our environment. Different areas are better for growing certain types of food, some areas are serviced better by stores, different incomes determine the quality and types of food we can afford, and so on. Cultural factors also influence the types of foods that are prominent in our diets, how our meals are structured, and many other factors related to food and diet.
Outside of diet, varying levels of sunlight (depending on where you live and your lifestyle) affect chemical levels within our body, including Vitamin D but also chemicals that are important for maintaining our 24-hour cycles that play a role in sleeping, digesting, and many other bodily functions. Exposure to different chemicals in our environments can lead to illness, and availability of health care can lead to longevity.
So clearly, there are interactions between our biology and our environment.
So where does mental health come into this, and why is it important? Our psychological functioning interacts with both our biology and our sociology/environment. Different thinking patterns and emotional experiences can result in varying levels of chemicals, like cortisol, throughout our bodies. Our mindsets influence how we think and reason, which then influences our actions. By influencing our actions, the way we interact with our environment changes. For example, someone in a certain mindset will desire junk food over a healthy meal, which will push them to be exposed to certain environments (e.g., a convenience store without healthy foods) and will change the nutrients available to their body. The nutrients in the body can of course influence our mental health (e.g., dopamine rises from sugar), which then further influence our thinking patterns and how we interact with our environment (e.g., going back to the store for more junk food).
Our mental health and psychological functioning are some of the key pieces to determining our outcomes as a result. The biological, psychological, and environmental (sociology) factors all interact with one another, which is why we talk about mental health from a biopsychosocial framework.
Let's look at a specific example to help make the importance of mental health even more clear: depression. If someone is depressed, their thinking is biased towards negative information, and they can be consumed by negative thoughts. If they are overwhelmed with negative thoughts, they will be less likely to be involved in activities and more likely to choose an environment where they are secluded, resulting in more time spent sedentary. Being sedentary changes the various chemical levels in our bodies, which results in imbalances in the brain that prolong depressed feelings. There is a giant feedback loop that perpetuates itself.
So how do we treat or improve situations like this? We can treat the biological imbalances (e.g., by prescribing anti-depressants and promoting physical activity). We can change the person's environment to help improve their situation (e.g., exposing them to more natural sunlight during the day to regulate their 24-hour chemical cycles). And, of course, we can help to target the negative thoughts that are perpetuating the situation.
Arguably, all three are equally important to target. By focusing on them all, each point of the cycle will be broken, and a person can work their way out of a situation.
Yet, there are still a couple of factors missing that may make mental health the most important piece to target: motivation and executive functioning.
Motivation is fairly obvious; if a person is unmotivated to change, they are not likely to follow through on changing their behaviors which will result in very few changes to their biological and environmental challenges. In fact, motivation is such an important part of getting a person to change (in ways that they want, for the better) that Motivational Interviewing is becoming a key piece of therapy.
The executive functioning piece relates to planning, organization skills, focus, and similar factors. If someone is in a position where their executive functioning is compromised, it can be hard for them to create a plan to change their situation, to troubleshoot when things go wrong, and to persist when it is tempting to give up. While executive functioning certainly has a biological/neurological component, it can be assisted by focusing on mental health and helping a person to identify strategies for tackling their challenges.
So why does mental health matter? Our mental health has a strong influence on our biological functioning, the environment we ultimately choose and create for ourselves, and our subjective experiences of life. Each of these also influences mental health, but that does not change the fact that mental health is a core component of how we function.
So let's not think about mental health as being about sane vs. insane (which, by the way, are legal terms, not psychological terms), or something to be ashamed of. Let's not think about it as biological vs. psychological vs. sociological. We are fine with our bodies playing a balancing act with the various chemicals that keep us alive, and we should think of mental health as important for the brain to effectively balance the different thoughts, emotions, and so forth that we experience as a part of life.
Along with our biology and environment, our mental health influences our outcomes. Mental health matters because it is a core framework on which our lives are built. Mental health matters because it helps us to make the most of our lives.
Mental health matters because it ultimately decides who we are.