There is no more pressing problem in the world today than the lack of healthy mental health. Gun violence, physical and emotional abuse, greed and many other personal, social and political problems have their origin in poor mental health.
Although most would agree that healthy mental health is a worthy objective, there are serious obstacles to achieving it: it lacks a clear-cut definition and there are hidden obstacles that have nothing to do with mental health itself. It is easy to state the qualities displayed by healthy mental health and equally obvious when behaviors suggest compromised mental health. Pointing out neither the positive attributes of healthy mental health nor the problems that ensue when compromised offers any insight on the nature of mental health itself or how to improve it.
Think what it would mean to have a clear-cut, understandable definition of mental health itself. It would provide direction, a goal, guidelines and a roadmap, a starting point for improvement. A definition would become a fixed standard for evaluating the quality of one’s mental health. Obstacles to change would be more easily identifiable, making them simpler to deal with. Specific components of mental health that need to change in order to improve would become apparent. The precise source of maladaptive thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors becomes apparent, exposing them to change.
Many mental disorders that reach a clinically significant level have their origin in poor mental health well before they become clinically diagnosable. Addressing poor mental health can help prevent the development of complications that later require professional attention.
Poor Mental Health Does Not Mean That One Is Mentally Ill
Please bear in mind an important consideration before we proceed to the heart of this manifesto.
To understand and deal with mental health issues, a distinction must be made between it and mental illness. Mental illness generally involves a physical malfunction in the brain such as in Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, mental health depends solely on mental processes within a physically healthy brain. This distinction is important because the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is best left to mental health professionals while every individual is capable of improving his/her own mental health. Considering someone with problematic mental health as mentally ill compromises effective remediation. Approaches designed to improve mental health are (or should be) entirely different from those employed for mental illness.
Therapies and medications abound to treat mental illness. Improving mental health is more difficult because it suffers from a lack of understanding of what constitutes mental health in the first place and from a lack of awareness of some of the obstacles to change. With a clear understanding of what mental health is and with sufficient motivation to overcome the obstacles, a mechanism for making adaptive changes is well known and easily applied.
It is morally repugnant to treat mental health with medication as if it were a mental illness without regard to its underlying dynamics.
Mental Health Basics
Awareness and application of three mental health basics provide a framework for meaningful progress. The basics include 1) a workable definition of mental health, 2) awareness of major obstacles to achieving it and 3) a simple and effective process for making adaptive changes.
Components of Mental Health I:
Intrinsic Behavioral Goals (Inbornintentions)
Every human being is born with four intrinsic behavioral goals and it is in our nature to strive in their direction. The four goals are 1) human dignity, 2) freedom of choice, 3) sense of accomplishment and 4) love.
We possess human dignity because we enjoy a number of qualities and characteristics in excess of any other species. These include consciousness, spoken and written language, rational as well as abstract thought, dexterity in making and using tools, the understanding and manipulation of numbers, a wide range of feelings and emotions, a conscience, a sense of aesthetics, at least a basic understanding of time and space, the capacity for introspection and even an awareness of eventual death.
The mentally healthy person respects human dignity in self and others. Nothing that varies between individuals has any bearing on human dignity. Male/female, young/old, nationality, beliefs, economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, hair/eye/skin color, healthy/sick, behavior, attitudes, feelings, thoughts… none of these add to or detract from human dignity in any way. Disrespecting a person because of any variable is a sure sign of compromised mental health.
Freedom of choice is our innate desire to choose freely among alternatives. It is essential to make choices in order to function, maintain control and develop and we would like to do so with as few restrictions as possible.
Our sense of accomplishment stems from the necessity to acquire food, clothing and shelter. Today, of course, there are innumerable other ways of satisfying our sense of accomplishment. We have a pleasant feeling when we have accomplished any task.
Love, in the sense used here, calls for seeing self, others and the outside world in a positive, affirmative and healthy light. It means having a positive world-view. Additionally, it means accepting positive feelings and behaviors directed towards us.
Robert G Olson in his book, An Introduction to Existentialism, (1962, Dover Publications, Inc.) lists four human values, essentially those described above. I have taken the liberty of reformulating them slightly and coined the term inbornintentions to encompass them as a group for easy reference. Their role in mental health is essentially the same although one is more important than the others.
Components of Mental Health II:
We all have thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors. Where did they come from? Why do we think, feel, express ourselves and act the way we do?
Following every significant experience, the subconscious mind retains three components: content, feeling and meaning. Content is the memory of what happened, feelings are the associated emotional attachments and meaning is the basic belief retained because of the experience. It is what one believes about the topic. Every basic belief has been learned, we were not born with any of them.
Basic beliefs are true for the holder (more on this later) and are retained throughout life unless modified or replaced.
Basic beliefs filter every new sensation and determine whether it is 1) a danger or threat, 2) significant or 3) insignificant. Those that fall into the latter category are simply ignored. The brain does not have the capacity or need to treat every incoming sensation with a comparable amount of attention.
The critical role of a basic belief is to determine if the incoming sensation is a threat. If so, a defense mechanism is initiated instantly without conscious intervention. We act before we think. This is crucial because if we did have to think in order to deterred if that rustling in the bushes over there was or was not a sabretooth tiger bent on having lunch, we might not live to be aware of the answer.
Finally, if the new sensation is significant but not dangerous, we act accordingly. This makes basic beliefs the source of our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors. Although we have free will, we are still restricted by what we have come to believe, making us prisoners, for better or worse, of our own experience.
Mental Health Defined
With a clear understanding of its two components, consider this definition:
Mental health is the state of mind determined by the relationship between intrinsic inbornintentions and learned basic beliefs. When basic beliefs and inbornintentions are compatible with each other, one enjoys healthy mental health. When a basic belief is contrary to an inbornintention, mental health has been compromised.
Recall now the advantages and benefits of having a well-defined concept of mental health.
Obstacles to Change I:
We have two brains.
When we are free of anxiety, we have at our disposal all of the thinking, reasoning and rational capacity that is within our nature. This is our “thinking brain”, the marvelous instrument that largely determines our humanity.
However, when anxiety strikes due to the perception of a threat, the thinking brain is hijacked and is put aside in favor of the “feeling brain.” As wonderful as it is to think, it is even more important to stay alive. Therefore, when there is a threat, self-preservation becomes paramount and the body automatically initiates a defense mechanism. In most instances, this is done without conscious thought before any reasoning takes place. In certain circumstances, this can be altered, but the vast majority the time we act before thinking. Prove this to yourself by recalling the last time that you said or did something while anxious that you later regretted.
This is important to understand because the process of change required to improve mental health begins with a thinking brain process. If the feeling brain is in control, progress becomes impossible.
Obstacles to Change II:
Commitment to One’s Personal Truth
It is a part of human nature to acquire basic beliefs throughout life. They provide direction, guidance, help sort order out of chaos and tell us where to go, how to act and what to do. All of this makes them an extremely important component of our existence. Therefore, they must be true. We simply could not function if we did not believe in our truths, our basic beliefs.
Consequently, we have a firm, almost unalterable adherence to our beliefs. Since we believe something to be true, any alternative must be false and we are loath to embrace it. If we were to embrace a new belief, it would imply that previously we believed a falsehood, which is not an easy admission to make.
The result is that it takes an open mind and a willingness to change in order to overcome the obstacle of our commitment to our own personal truth.
Obstacles to Change III:
Stigma, lack of a definition of mental health, insufficient motivation, dependence on reason and logic, fear of the unknown, self-sabotage, inertia and impatience are all obstacles to change, to say nothing of a lack of knowledge as to how to make desirable changes.
With all these factors working against adaptive change, it is no wonder that problematic mental health is so persistent. But it does not have to be so. By having a clear understanding of the objective, overcoming obstacles, and changing problematic basic beliefs, healthy mental health is obtainable.
How To Improve Mental Health
Based on understanding that mental health is determined by the relationship between learned basic beliefs and intrinsic inbornintentions and that the greater the correlation between these two the better one’s men’s mental health, there follows a clear-cut, simple process to improve. This is a joint-venture between one’s conscious and subconscious minds since the problem lies in the subconscious mind but the solution must originate consciously.
Step 1: Identify a subconscious problematic basic belief. The way to bring a subconscious basic belief up to consciousness is through introspection. That is, search inside by asking yourself “Why?” do I think/feel/behave the way I do? What is the triggering belief? Continue addressing relevant questions until you can express the problematic basic belief.
Step 2: Consciously construct a positive statement that 1) is contrary to the problematic basic belief and 2) is consistent with an inbornintention.
Step 3: Deliberately practice behaviors consistent with the positive statement. Continue doing so until the consciously chosen adaptive behaviors become automatic. At that point, the conscious statement has become a subconscious basic belief and is now generating its own thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors, reflecting an improved mental health!
New possibilities for improving mental health and the quality of one’s life come about with understanding and applying the mental health basics. To do this is to practice the Art of Living.
In a Nutshell
Mental Health Basics at a Glance
Mental health defined: The relationship between two factors in the brain determine an individual’s mental health: basic beliefs and inbornintentions. The higher the positive correlation between the two, the healthier one’s mental health, and vice versa.
Basic beliefs are truths acquired through experience and stored in the subconscious. They are learned, true for the individual, and retained throughout life unless replaced. Basic beliefs are important because they determine one’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors.
Inbornintentions are four intrinsic behavioral goals toward which humans naturally strive. They are 1) human dignity, 2) freedom of choice, 3) sense of accomplishment and 4) love. Inbornintentions are immutable and common to every human. Individuals relate positively or negatively to them according to their basic beliefs.
Obstacles prevent progress. Minimizing anxiety and remaining open to changing a strongly held truth (a basic belief) will overcome two major obstacles.
One pathway to improvement is by replacing a problematic basic belief with one that is consistent with an inbornintention. Accomplish this by: 1) bringing a problematic subconscious basic belief up to consciousness through introspection, 2) formulating a cognitive belief that is contrary to the problematic one just identified and 3) deliberately practicing behaviors consistent with the new cognitive belief until it becomes automatic.
Mental health awareness is the process of evaluating the quality of one’s own mental health and taking steps to improve. Even the poorest mental health does not imply mental illness. No one has perfect mental health and improvement is always possible.
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