Last month we paid tribute to Irvo Otieno, Joshua McLemore, and Jordan Neely who died essentially because their mental illness was not understood by others.
What Does It Meant To Be Mentally Well/Mentally Well
Perhaps because of those distressing cases, or maybe because it’s mental health awareness month, we’ve seen a lot of attention being devoted to addressing mental illness. But we don’t often see helpful explanations of what mental illness is. And what does it mean if you don’t feel like you’re mentally ill but you also don’t feel like you’re mentally well?
Establishing An Emotional/Physical/Psychological/Behavioral Baseline
We like to think of “illness” and “wellness” on a continuum that involves four areas:
- Emotional (how intensely we feel things and the quality of those feelings)
- Physical (how we experience our body)
- Psychological (our thoughts and how our mind is occupied)
- Behavioral (how we act in the world, with ourselves and with others)
We usually need to establish a baseline in those domains by asking some questions such as those below.
Questions to Ask:
- How stressed/relaxed are you right now on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being really stressed and 10 being super chill?
- How stressed are you generally on the same scale? (Does it depend on the situations around you or is it more about your internal state)?
- Are you a super feeler, more generally neutral, or numb?
- Are you more prone to negative emotions (fear, anger, anxiety, resentment) or positive emotions (joy, peace, love, gratitude)?
- Hopeless or hopeful?
- Do you tend to personalize/dwell on negative events and overlook positive events or are you able to focus on more on positives?
- Ruminating/full or regret or have positive feelings about the past?
- Worried about what’s coming next or excited about the future?
- Are your thoughts generally negative or positive?
- Do you find yourself obsessing about things or can you move on in your mind?
- Do you experience your thoughts as inside your mind or as outside of you (or even as voices outside of you)?
- If you hear voices are they saying negative things or positive things?
- Are you reality-oriented/believe what is conventionally thought to be “real” or do you believe things that other people would find bizarre or that are contradicted by what is taken by others to be “real”?
- If you see things that no one else sees, is it frightening to you or is it pleasant?
- Reality-oriented/believe what is conventionally thought to be “real” or believe things that other people would find bizarre or that is contradicted by what is taken by most to be “real”?
- See what most other people see or see things others do not?
- Easily distracted or laser focused?
- Are your thoughts cloudy/muddled or sharp and clear?
- In a lot of pain and physical discomfort or generally physically comfortable and at ease?
- Listless, have lots of energy, too much energy/manic?
- Sleep too little or too much?
- Sleep poorly or sleep well (deep sleep/wake up rested and rejuvenated)?
- Have no sex drive or too much sex drive?
- Hate people or love people?
- Introvert or extrovert?
- Do you have trouble trusting people or are you too trusting?
- Feel like you have no real sense of self or inner core or you have a strong sense of self?
- Look inward to make decisions/Seek advice from others to make decisions?
- Do you doubt yourself, do you trust yourself and your intuitions, or are you overly confident?
- Bored or highly engaged?
- Externally motivated or internally motivated?
- Overwhelmed or unruffled/able to cope?
- Avoiding things or ready and willing to jump in?
Note that most of the questions seem to have the “negative” on the left and the “positive”; however, 3, 20, and 29 the right and left are both extremes with the middle being more balanced. Also some of the categories are just opposites of each other like extroversion and introversion (25) and going inward or outward to make decisions (28).
Also if you can think of any questions that might be useful to add, don’t hesitate to pop them over in an email to us.
After establishing a person’s baseline, we want to find out if a person feels like they are functioning in them—do they feel like things are working for them in their personal lives, professional lives, relationships, etc. If things are going well for them, what keeps it that way and how can that be sustained. If things have gotten worse for them, what triggered that and what needs to happen to bring it back to a higher level of functioning?
Mapping the Continuum
As a way of getting a visual snapshot of your wellbeing, take the questions that are most salient to you and write them in a list with lines connecting the ends of each condition (like Rebecca’s example here). Copy your list so that you can do as a regular check in with yourself.
On one the copies, make a symbol for yourself and place yourself on the continuums. You can also make symbols for other people who are important to you as a basis comparison. Rebecca did this with her sister, Jenny, her husband, KC, and Gioia, just to give an idea or how other people
Do This Regularly to See If When You Are Out of Balance
As mentioned above, we suggest regularly engage in this exercise to see where you are on your continuums. Then you know when you are more mentally well/mentally unwell based upon your own baseline.
This is to not only observe areas that may indicate that you are not doing well, but also to catch areas that may be in balance (for you) when you are well but then become vulnerable when you are not, e.g., the quality of your sleep, or your sense of hope, or your willingness to take things on.
Not a Formal Assessment
Please note that this is not a formal assessment and should not be used to diagnose mental illness. It’s meant to expand the ways that we think about our mental health and give language to what it means to be “well” and “unwell”.
The Role of Trauma
Also important to note is that these questions do not ask whether you have or are experiencing trauma in your life. Depending upon the severity of the trauma, the persistence of the trauma, and when it happened, trauma has profound impact on our mental and physical health.
When we are asking these questions or ourselves and others, it is with the understanding that some of the ways that we may be out of balance are the result of traumatic things that have happened or are happening to us individually and/or collectively. This means that getting and staying in balance will likely involve implementing strategies that have been proven to help people address, cope with, and recover from trauma such as support groups, therapy, and helping others who have been through similar trauma(s).
Please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you are struggling with trauma and need support. We are very invested in helping directing others to resources that can help them.
National Alliance of Mental Illness
We couldn’t end a newsletter on mental wellness/illness without bringing up NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. They are one of the most important organizations in the US devoted to educating people about mental health. We highly recommend using them as a resource.