Last week I attended to a family who’s terminally ill matriarch, Jane, was hours away from her last breath. Only 55 years old, the sudden and rapid decline of her body and mind was too unbearable for the family. Just as worse than the cancer that was destroying Jane, was the dysfunctionality of her family as the battled each other throughout the house. Having counseled the family in the months leading up to this moment, I was already well-aware of the decades of unresolved conflict and pathology that permeated this family. A tiny spark was all it took to set this family ablaze, fueled by decades of unresolved bitterness, regret and anger. This day, the two sisters were warring with each other as to whether or not to give her mother more morphine to ease the pain. Mind you, the feud was taking place in front of Jane. Then there was Jane’s youngest son who stormed out of the house slamming the door in rage and yelling at the top of his lungs in the front yard because the grief was too immense. He had an estranged relationship with his mother and was now realizing that reconciliation was too late. Finally, you had Jane’s sister yelling at the adult children for their greediness and selfishness. There was not just a cancer inside Jane, but a cancer within the family that appeared to have the same dire prognosis. I stood off to the side, leaning against the wall while observing everyone’s house of cards tumbling into an oblivion. I thought to myself, it doesn’t get much worse than this.
Every day I counsel people who find themselves in the midst of deep despair, anger, and sadness. One of my chief concerns is how to help individuals gain insight into managing their own mental health. My concern for this essay is to provide a definition for what good mental health is. To be fair, mental health is a vague term that is dependent on innumerable nuances, subtleties, and context. But just as we have a general consensus of what good physical health is, it’s a worthy task to explore what good mental health is.
Let’s begin. A mentally healthy person has a positive and strong view of the self; self-awareness to know what they are feeling and why they are feeling it; the ability to turn their inner struggles and fears into strength; the ability to gravitate to contentment and courage after being swept away with negative emotions; the ability to discover nuggets of wisdom through failure and tribulation; the ability to grow, develop, and move towards goals; the ability to re-frame negative events into insights of wisdom; the ability to accept criticism and view it has an opportunity to learn and understand; a strong sense of values that are inner directed, rather than outer directed; ability to modulate desires, expectations, and perspectives towards healthy ends.
A mentally healthy person is one who has the self-awareness to stay present in emotionally charged moments in life. Rather than being swept away by fear and insecurity of the past or future, the mentally healthy person is able to face adversity with courage. The analogy of a hurricane may help to clarify. Despite the gale force winds swirling around, it’s in the eye of the hurricane where there is an eerie calmness. The mentally healthy person is able to recognize when the environment is changing and the winds are picking up; so too are they are able to position themselves in the peaceful eye of the storm with their feet firmly on the ground, staying resolute and mindful.
This doesn’t mean that the mentally healthy person will never get sad, angry, or feel angst. Far from it. Some situations warrant anger or righteous indignation. Even deep sadness is a natural part of experiencing loss. It does, however, mean that they possess the awareness to re-calibrate, re-position, and re-orient themselves towards perspectives that are good for their mental well-being. I’m reminded of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl who, while surrounded by death and despair in a concentration camp, was able to mentally cling on to hope while finding scant scintilla of meaning within his dire circumstances. Thus, the mentally healthy person is able to guide and even manipulate the mental self-talk in the head in a way that makes moving forward possible.
What life event and experience pops into your mind when you consider a time where you were overcome with a deep amount of stress, anxiety, or fear? Try and make that experience vivid and lucid in your mind. Recall your dynamic and charged thoughts as well as your raw emotions in that moment. Bring to mind how this experience affected your worldview and perspective of your own life and future. Perhaps the experience that you are pondering brought disillusionment, despair, or anger. Here is the question: How did you cope and persevere through the mental pain? This question ought to prompt you to consider your own emotional resiliency. Emotional resiliency is nestled with good mental health because it provides a portal into how you manage your own mental well-being. How you navigate your own mental health will reveal how emotional resilient you are when chaos ensues. As you look at your history, how did you persevere through mental anguish? What did the painful experience teach you about yourself? Have you repressed the pain, or have you integrated and adapted the pain into the story of who you are?
The pathology of an angst and tortured mind lies in wait within every individual. Yes, even the most pious of Buddhist monks has to contend with a mind that can spiral into chaos. The psychological detonator that is so easily triggered resides is utterly ubiquitous. When our minds ignite, it’s as if the apocalypse is at hand. A bad week at work or a betrayal by a friend can lead to one’s mind spiraling out of control and thinking the worse. Whether it’s death, trauma, or someone cuts you off while driving, our fragile ego shatters into a thousand tiny pieces. Ask yourself, do you have the psychological resiliency to cling to virtue and hope? Do you have a reservoir within you that provides purpose and meaning in life?
In order to possess mental health, psychological homeostasis, or mental balance, one ought to explore the question: what is good mental health? I encourage you to think through the definition I provided and add or subtract from it in order to enhance your own understanding.
 “Jane” is a pseudonym and some of the following events have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual and family.