You may not be mentally ill but are you mentally healthy?

mad-womanWhen co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was walking on the jet bridge into that German Wings aircraft on March 24, 2015 – probably chortling happily with other crew members, as they usually do, no one could presage the tragedy that he was going to cause. Forty minutes into German Wings Flight 9525, when Andreas Lubitz was left in the cockpit alone, he deliberately flew the plane into the French Alps, killing himself and all 149 others on board. Mr. Lubitz seemed to be in perfect physical shape that day- because if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been allowed to fly-, but as it turns out, his mental health was askance from the normal- yet no one knew.

A person’s state of physical health is fairly easy to identify; even the untrained eye can pick up an awry appearance, an awkward gait, or bodily warmth at the touch to signify the absence of physical vitality, but it is not that simple when it comes to mental health. Except for the few who are overtly ill, many people walk around with mental illness unseen by the next person. But the problem is not so much with diagnosed mental illnesses in a minority of the population as it is the absence of optimum mental well-being in a sizeable proportion of the population. The mere absence of mental illness does not mean one has optimum mental health.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act as we cope with life. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Our life as we know it is made better or worse by our mental state.

The closer your total score is to 35 (highest) the more likely you are to be mentally healthy, and the closer your score is to 7 (least) the less likely you are to be mentally healthy. There are no national figures for Ghana, but in the UK, the most mentally healthy 20% of the population scored 29 or above, while the least mentally healthy 20% scored below 22. So there you have it. Do you still consider yourself to have optimal mental health?

Mental health is one of the two major components of health- the other being physical health. One cannot be considered healthy if either of these is defective since the two components work in tandem to produce a complete being. However, because the physical is what we see, we normally relegate mental health to the back burner.

High mental wellbeing involves feelings of contentment, enjoyment and engagement with the world. These will lead to self-esteem and self-confidence, which make us better able to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

So everyone has to strive to achieve the highest level of mental health possible. It is true that genetics and other non-modifiable factors can increase the risk for poor mental health for some, but there are things you can do to improve your lot. The National Health Service of Britain proposes these five;

Connect – connect with the people around you: your family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships. Attending family events, calling a friend to share a problem or availing yourself to help advice someone is a good way to stay mentally healthy.

Be active – you don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or play a game of football. Find the activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life. Exercise improves mood and is a perfect way to let out some steam after a stressful day. It leaves you feeling happier and more relaxed and improves your confidence and self-esteem. It is also known to help prevent depression and other mood disorders.

Keep learning – acquiring new knowledge or learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. This doesn’t mean you have to enroll in a formal institution of higher learning- that in itself can be stressful. You can engage in simple things and still learn a great deal- you can sign up for a cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike. New knowledge or skill gives a sense of fulfilment and confidence, both of which help one attain high mental wellbeing.

Give to others – even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as offering a free service at your local community centre, or voluntarily donating blood also improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.

Be mindful – be more aware of the present moment, including your feelings and thoughts, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”, and it can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.

Mental health must be brought to the front burner if we are to attain the optimum health we all wish for. You may not bring down a plane because of mental illness, but make sure you don’t live a strained life because of poor mental health. You owe it to yourself to take mental health serious.