Blog #1: What Is Mental/Brain Health, And Why Is It So Important?


What is Mental Health?
In the past few years, there has been a lot of dialogue about brain health or mental health. Many people still have difficulty acknowledging that brain/mental health is an essential component of physical health, of life, and consequently, those of us living with a mental illness, continue to be subjected to the myths, misconceptions and stigma that surrounds the topic of mental illness.

It is frustrating and at times inconceivable that in 2019, there are people who, despite all the educational resources available, continue to believe that mental illness is contagious, or a sign of weakness or wrongdoing, or is a sign of Satan! Well, guess what, we are all born with a brain and a body and they are one. Our body represents physical health and our brain represents mental health, without a brain, we could not function, because we would be dead, and so let’s be very clear, mental health is an essential component of health living, it is normal and it is essential to our continued existence.

In 1999, the Surgeon General stated that, “Mental Health is a state of successful performance of mental function. Resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationship with people and the ability to change and cope with adversity.” So, in a nutshell, mental health it is the ability to successfully adapt to challenges that life creates for us. We all experience happy feelings and negative feelings; this is what makes us human, and every single day, each of us experience a whole gamut of emotions and stressors, and it is our ability to recognize these responses, learn from them, understand and adapt our lives that enable us to develop coping strategies and empower ourselves to move forward into the future. Our life experiences and learning response to stressors is an important part of maintaining good mental health.

The Brain
The brain comprises two hemispheres, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere and each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body (the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa) and four lobes. The frontal lobe controls judgement, behaviors, decision making, personality; the temporal lobe controls memory, mood, understand language and meaning; the occipital lobe processes visual stimuli, and the parietal lobe deals with motor tasks, tactile and visuospatial perception of self and the outside world.

The brain is the most important organ in the body, it is the master control centre and has six domains of brain function that work together like a well-oiled machine. The six domains are:

  1. Thinking: problem solving, planning, organizing.
  2. Physical: respiratory, circulatory, nervous system, genitourinary, digestive system, muscoskeletal, endocrine, immune system.
  3. Emotion: sad, angry, fear.
  4. Perception: see, hear, smell, taste, touch
  5. Behavior: acts of kindness, acts of aggression, social interaction.
  6. Signaling: being response and reacting to environment. Think flight fright fight response.

Our brain has millions of cells communicating with one another using neurotransmitters or chemical messengers such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Everything we think, feel, do, experience involves the brain. You cannot separate the mind and body, they are one, they work together, so any environmental stressor will lead to a brain response. For example, a feeling of sadness often results in muscle tension, worrying can result in a headache, feeling anxious can make you feel sick and queasy, whilst anger can make your heart rate increase and you can hear and feel it pounding in your chest.

A very important point to remember, is that the frontal lobe, the area responsible for problem solving, risk assessment, impulse control, planning is not fully developed until the mid to late 20yrs e.g. female age 21 to 24 yrs. and male age 24 to 27 yrs. That is why motor vehicle insurance for 17yr old and older is so high!

What is Mental Distress?
It is the inner signal of stress/anxiety e.g. a test. It is called a stress response and as part of good mental health, if we learn how to manage these stress responses it helps us develop skills to help in the future.

What is a Mental Health Problem?
This occurs when a person faces larger stressors than normal e.g. death of pet, move to new school. When faced with large stressors people will experience many different emotions many of them negative e.g. anger along with substantial difficulties in other domains such as thinking (nothing will be the same), physical (insomnia, aches/pains, no energy), behavioral
(angry outbursts, withdrawal), emotion (sadness, feeling hopeless). A mental health problem is more acute than mental distress and lasts longer, however, with appropriate treatment such as counselling, a good support system, and (possibly) medications the issue should resolve within a few weeks to a few months.

What is a Mental Disorder/Mental Illness?
A mental disorder or mental illness arises from a complex interplay between one’s DNA (genetics) and environment: external/internal. It is the result of a disturbance in one or more of the six domains in the brain and results in difficulties with the control of feelings, thinking, behaviours. It is important to remember, that most children and teenagers with a mental illness will get well and stay well with the ‘right’ treatments; however, some mental illnesses, because they affect how the brain functions such as schizophrenia, sometimes needs more complex treatments. It is also important to remember that a person can have all 3 M’s at the same time. For example, Jim has schizophrenia (mental disorder), his dog just died (mental health problem), and he has an exam tomorrow (mental distress).

A disorder of the thinking and perception domain is schizophrenia. With depression there is a disorder of the emotion domain. A teenager with ADHD and/or substance abuse has a disorder in the behaviour domain, whilst a child with a panic or anxiety disorder has a problem in the signaling domain.

How to Promote and Maintain Good Mental/Brain Health in Children and Teenagers
Maintaining good mental health should encompass a holistic approach and meet the child/teenager’s physical, emotional, social, cultural, spiritual and educational needs.

  • Healthy diet
  • Daily exercise
  • Restful sleep
  • Outdoor play
  • Stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Encourage creativity and self expression: writing, drawing, painting, building
  • Time out from social media sites and devices
  • Safety: helmet, pads, gun safety, alcohol/pills in secure location
  • Regular assessments and visit with health care provider
  • Fluids: 6 to 8 glasses daily
  • Family time and socialization with peers
  • Express validation, compassion, encouragement and love
  • Help them to develop a positive mindset

By supporting and nurturing a child/teenager’s emotional, social and educational needs, we help them develop a value system, become self aware and confident, develop responsible decision-making skills, form healthy relationships, and create positive life experiences for self and others.

*Brain diagram reprinted with permission

In my next Blog #2
I will be discussing why mental illness in children and teenagers is increasing

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