Knowing how to take care of your mental health when you’re in college is just as important as maintaining your physical health. In fact, there’s a strong link between the two: doctors are finding that positive mental health can actually improve your physical health.
So, what is “mental health”? Mental health can be defined as a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Having good mental health doesn’t necessarily mean being happy or successful all the time. Most people feel depressed, lonely, or anxious now and then, but those with good mental health can take these feelings in stride and overcome them. When such feelings or moods persist and interfere with a person’s ability to function normally, though, it may be a sign of a more serious mental health problem and time to seek help.
The term mental illness refers to mental disorders or health conditions characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning. Depression is the most common type of mental illness, and it affects more than 26 percent of the U.S. adult population. It has been estimated that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing only ischemic heart disease.
Evidence has shown that mental disorders, especially depressive disorders, are strongly linked to the occurrence and course of many chronic diseases—including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and obesity and many risk behaviors for chronic disease, such as physical inactivity, smoking, excessive drinking, and insufficient sleep. In other words, if your mental health is poor, you may be at greater risk for disease and poor physical health.
Mental Health Indicators
In the public health arena, more emphasis and resources have been devoted to screening, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness than mental health. Little has been done to protect the mental health of those who are free from mental illness. There are some known indicators of mental health, including the following:
- Emotional well-being: life satisfaction, happiness, cheerfulness, peacefulness.
- Psychological well-being: self-acceptance, personal growth including openness to new experiences, optimism, hopefulness, purpose in life, control of one’s environment, spirituality, self-direction, and positive relationships.
- Social well-being: social acceptance, belief in the potential of people and society as a whole, personal self-worth and usefulness to society, and a sense of community.
The former surgeon general suggests that there are social determinants of mental health—just as there are social determinants of general health—that need to be in place to support mental health. These include adequate housing, safe neighborhoods, equitable jobs and wages, quality education, and equity in access to quality health care.
There are also some common-sense strategies that you can adopt to support and improve your emotional, psychological, and social health. Not surprisingly, they are very similar to the strategies one uses to cope with stress:
- Eat a balanced diet
- Get enough sleep
- Get regular physical activity
- Stay socially connected with friends and family
- Make smart choices about alcohol and drugs
- Get help if you are anxious or depressed