What Is Mental Health? – Free Ebook

So efficient and hushed are our 
brains in their day to day operations,  

we are apt to miss what an extraordinary 
and complicated achievement it is to feel  

mentally well. A mind in a healthy state is, 
in the background, continually performing  

a near-miraculous set of manoeuvres that underpin 
our moods of clear-sightedness and purpose.

To appreciate what mental health might be  

(and therefore what its opposite 
involves), we might take a moment  

to consider some of what will be going on in 
the folds of an optimally-functioning mind:

First and foremost, a healthy mind is an 
editing mind, an organ that manages to sieve,  

from thousands of stray, dramatic, disconcerting 
or horrifying thoughts, those particular ideas and  

sensations that actively need to be entertained 
in order for us to direct our lives effectively.

Partly this means keeping at bay punitive 
and critical judgements that might want to tell  

us repeatedly how disgraceful and appalling we 
are – long after harshness has ceased to serve  

any useful purpose. When we are interviewing 
for a new job or taking someone on a date,  

a healthy mind doesn’t force 
us to listen to inner voices  

that insist on our unworthiness. It allows us 
to talk to ourselves as we would to a friend.

At the same time, a healthy mind 
resists the pull of unfair comparisons.  

It doesn’t constantly allow the achievements 
and successes of others to throw us off course  

and reduce us to a state of bitter inadequacy.  

It doesn’t torture us by continually comparing 
our condition to that of people who have,  

in reality, had very different upbringings and 
trajectories through life. A well-functioning  

mind recognises the futility and cruelty of 
constantly finding fault with its own nature.

Along the way, a healthy mind keeps 
a judicious grip on the faucet of fear.  

It knows that, in theory, there is an endless 
number of things that we could worry about:  

a blood vessel might fail, a scandal might erupt, 
the plane’s engines could sheer from their wings…  

But it has a good sense of the distinction between 
what could conceivably happen and what is in fact  

likely to happen – and it is able to leave us in 
peace as regards the wilder eventualities of fate,  

confident that awful things will either not 
unfold or could be dealt with ably enough  

if ever they did so. A healthy mind avoids 
catastrophic imaginings: it knows that there  

are broad and stable stone steps, not a steep and 
slippery incline, between itself and disaster.

A healthy mind has compartments with heavy 
doors that shut securely. It can compartmentalise  

where it needs to. Not all thoughts belong at 
all moments. While talking to a grandmother,  

the mind prevents the emergence of images of 
last’s nights erotic fantasies; while looking  

after a child, it can repress its more cynical 
and misanthropic insights. Aberrant thoughts about  

jumping on a train line or harming oneself with 
a sharp knife can remain brief peculiar flashes  

rather than repetitive fixations. A healthy 
mind has mastered the techniques of censorship.

A healthy mind can quieten its own buzzing 
preoccupations in o rder, at times, to focus on  

the world beyond itself. It can be present and 
engaged with what and who is immediately around.  

Not everything it could feel has to be felt 
at every moment. It can be a good listener.

A healthy mind combines an 
appropriate suspicion of certain people  

with a fundamental trust in humanity.  

It can take an intelligent risk with a stranger. 
It doesn’t extrapolate from life’s worst moments  

in order to destroy the possibility of 
anything good emerging with a new acquaintance.

A healthy mind knows how to hope;  

it identifies and then hangs on tenaciously to a 
few reasons to keep going. Grounds for despair,  

anger and sadness are, of course, all around. But 
the healthy mind knows how to bracket negativity  

in the name of endurance. It clings to 
evidence of what is still beautiful and kind.  

It remembers to appreciate; it can – despite 
everything – still look forward to a hot bath,  

some dried fruit or dark chocolate, a chat with a 
friend, or a satisfying day of work. It refuses to  

let itself be silenced by all the many sensible 
arguments in favour of rage and despondency.

Outlining some of the features of a healthy 
mind helps us to identify what can go awry  

when we fall ill. We should acknowledge the extent 
to which mental illness is ultimately as common,  

and as essentially unshameful, 
as its bodily counterpart.  

True mental health involves a frank acceptance  

of how much ill health there will have to be in 
even the most ostensibly competent and meaningful  

life. And we should be no more reluctant to 
seek help than we are when we develop a chest  

infection or a sore knee – and should consider 
ourselves no less worthy of love and sympathy.

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