When I was first asked to write a blog post on how to assess one’s own mental health, I first thought that this would be easy. After all, I’ve been a psychiatrist for more than 15 years!

But therein lies some of the complexity. Even though I call myself a mental health professional, most of my actual training has been as a mental illness professional. That’s a problem because it is very clear that true emotional-behavioral wellbeing and health is more than the just the absence of psychiatric symptoms. Not being depressed is certainly important, but it is not the same thing as being happy.

Achieving Real Mental Health

Fortunately, people are devoting more energy into thinking not only about treating mental illness, but also how to help people achieve real mental health.

Contrary to a common misperception, mental wellbeing is not about being in an eternal state of happiness. For most people, true wellbeing is something deeper, more complex, and ultimately more satisfying, even if it involves feeling unhappy from time to time.

Dimensions of Mental Wellbeing

Martin Seligman, a psychologist who is one of the founders of a new field called Positive Psychology, describes well-being along five different dimensions.

  • Positive emotions: The presence of traits such as optimism, resilience, and happiness.
  • Engagement: Being connected and involved with things that are important to you.
  • Relationships: Closeness to other people, such as romantic partners, family, and friends.
  • Meaning and purpose: The sense that what you are doing matters.
  • Accomplishment and mastery: A feeling that you have achieved something and are good at what you do, no matter what it is.

Not every person defines wellness the same way, but these dimensions can serve as a guide to help you think about particular areas that are going well and others that may need some extra attention and effort.

Where to Start

Of course, the presence of more significant emotional-behavioral problems can get in the way of optimal mental health. Emotions like anxiety, sadness, and anger are crucial to survival, but when excessive or unregulated can lead to serious problems. If there are questions about the presence of psychiatric disorder, or if someone is seeking help and support to maximize their emotional-behavioral wellbeing, talking to your primary care clinician or a mental health professional is often a good place to start.

Many people who struggle with diagnosable mental health disorders seek help through two main avenues, namely psychotherapy and medications. Both can be extremely useful. However, one thing research is beginning to show us more strongly is that the wellness and health promotion activities that traditionally have been touted as helping people who are already well do even better can also really help people who are struggling. Things like mindfulness, exercise, good nutrition, reading, hydration, participation in music and the arts, getting regular sleep, and being involved in one’s community should not be considered the exclusive purview of only the mentally healthy “elite,” but also those who grapple at times with our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Basically, that is the rest of us.

David C. Rettew, MD, is a child psychiatrist at the UVM Medical Center, where he is Director of the Pediatric Psychiatry Clinic.

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