The irony of the phrase “mental health” lies with the fact that it refers to a moment in time when it’s been lost and a sickness has set in. What was the cause? Where did it begin? Was it avoidable? Inundated with news of a national opioid addiction crisis on the one hand and a state emergency declaration due to racial tensions on the other, one wonders what the body of mental health professionals has to say.
Looking beyond the label to see what’s in the jar
I believe a foundational problem in preserving and protecting mental health (if one has to use that term) is the separation of psychology from psychiatry. The understanding of how the mind works is the treatment of the issues caused by its imbalances. Just as birth is ultimately the cause of death, the mind is ultimately the cause of mental health imbalances. Just as the world of boxed foods has fed more people but ravaged human health through obesity, metabolic syndrome, allergic and immunological reactions, cardiovascular dysfunction, and cancer, the “always on” world and its false projection of productivity has fractured the intrinsic stability of the human consciousness and all but destroyed the mind’s ability to observe and correct itself.
The result is the observable rise across masses of populations in addiction, violence, and body dysmorphia (which I blame in great part on the selfie). Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s innate ability to rewire itself, is an extraordinary concept that is observable not just in the result of therapy, meditation, or biofeedback, but also mechanistically through observable changes in neural pathways. The brain can literally change the way it’s formed. In essence, what we focus on, not just what we eat, is who we become.
Seeing the mind and body as a continuum
James Kingsland, a science and medical journalist for The Guardian, writes extensively about the relaxation response and how it impacts inflammation, insulin secretion, and DNA repair. The relaxation response reduces oxidative stress at the cellular level and tames inflammation associated with hypertension, anxiety, insomnia, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The mind-body connection is itself a false phrase in that it creates two labels. The mind is part of the body in that it affects biochemical processes just as the body is part of the mind in that it contains sensory feedback mechanisms. The real connection between stress and hypertension is a one-step example of this continuum of the body of the mind.
Is mental health a continuum?
Yes! We all have the symptoms of those who we label as mentally unwell — sadness, paranoia, anxiety, and mood swings are all human experiences. People unable to observe and, thereby, contain the boundaries of these experiences become labeled as depressed, paranoid, suffering anxiety disorder, bipolar, schizophrenic, or some variation of them. So is the conclusion that we’re all crazy? Well, yes, in a way we are — given the nature of the mind and the ebb and flow that it creates by design. While structural chemical imbalances are treated through medication in the practice of psychiatry and through therapy in the practice of clinical psychology, the vast majority of mental discomfort that is being coped with through self-medication and driving the steady outpouring of societal vitriol is a critically important subject for the field of mental health.
Can we apply proactive models for mental health management?
Education that includes math, science, and language but not an understanding of how to observe the mind itself is an incomplete process. Much like healthcare, if mental health is exclusively defined as the reactive process of therapy and medication only when mental processes are out of balance, we risk losing the evolutionary thread that has gotten us this far. The David Lynch Foundation has programs for schools in urban centers and teaches mindfulness meditation to at-risk populations.
Approaches that start early can be profoundly powerful, given the neuroplasticity of the mind. In order to create a world that espouses higher ideals instead of spiraling downwards into the most primitive emotional and physiological impulses of rage and hatred, such early intervention is essential. Without it, the mental health profession will continue to name new epidemics and governments declare national emergencies, but a lifetime of inattention to mental processes can as much be fixed with legislation or medication as a pill can overcome a lifetime of poor consumption habits. Evolution depends on learning from the self.