There’s been a lot of talk about mental health lately. But it’s mostly focused on what Yale as an institution can do to support the mentally unwell, and rarely about what we can do ourselves.
Mental health should be on everyone’s minds all of the time. It should not be just another issue that flares up after campus-wide tragedies or debates on withdrawal and therapy. It should be a primary concern in each of our lives, just like staying out of the cold or eating three meals a day.
But let me first define what I mean by “mental health.” I am not talking about mental health in the narrow sense of mental illness. And I am not talking about mental health in the broad sense of everything that goes on in the brain. When I say “mental health,” I’m referring to the state of mind that is formed by our daily patterns of thoughts and emotions.
According to this definition, which relies not on deviation from the norm but on normal mental activity, we might be able to alter our mental patterns for better or worse. Most of us have the capacity to upkeep our mental health by taking certain measures. If we want to be fully functional human beings, we have the responsibility to do so.
Maintaining good mental health primarily consists of the ability to bounce back from extremes. A healthy mind is not one that is always happy, engaged or calm. We would not demand that our bodies stop catching colds or suffering bruises. Likewise, we must understand that negative emotions like pessimism are perfectly healthy but lead to depression, anxiety and stress if they become uncontrollable. Conversely, generally positive attitudes like optimism can become unhealthy if they lead to irrational or risky behavior.
Cultivating a healthy mind requires the recognition of patterns of mental activity. We need to be aware of what frustrates us and throws us into despair, as well as what makes us feel good and whole. No doubt everyone already has an intuitive sense of his or her own mentality, but full awareness of it requires discipline and effort. We need to recognize our minds’ tendencies to skew toward some thoughts and emotions and not others.
A while ago, I gravitated toward an amorphous and empty feeling, as if I were sensing the world through a haze. At first I felt somewhat cushioned from the volatility of the world around me, but gradually and almost without noticing I became entrapped in my own mind. Like many people who become afflicted by a single and persistent emotion, I could not see myself moving beyond this mental state. But I recognized my condition as being abnormal, and my acknowledgment of the problem gave me the space I needed to recreate other emotions and recover my mental health.
My case was not nearly as debilitating as those of many others. I do not think that all lapses in mental health are easily preventable through a little bit of self-control. But I do think that we need to take the first step toward preventing mental illness — being aware of our own mental conditions.
We can do this by considering how we relate to other people and our past selves, and by not falling prey to the fallacy that we are stuck in our own heads. Only then can we develop the habits that prevent us from falling into mental gutters, like expressing gratitude toward other people or writing in a journal,.
Taking action and exercising self-control is never easy. And it is sometimes impossible — circumstances can cause irreparable damage to the mind. The simple methods I have spelled out to combat mental illness are merely preventive and designed to protect the mental health of the average human being. They would not work in situations where prevention is already too late.
Those who have voiced their opinions about mental health in recent days are right to call for better mental support systems at Yale. However, I believe that the University’s role is and should be more reactive than proactive. Policy initiatives, such as the development of more amenable withdrawal procedures or the addition of more therapists at Yale Health, should aim to help people who have become ill due to circumstances beyond their control.
The bulk of responsibility is ours. Although we should call for institutional change and more effective ways of dealing with mental illness, we should also prioritize proactively maintaining our own mental health. After all, good mental health policy is important and necessary — but good mental health should be our goal.
Amanda Mei is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.