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You Don't Need Mental Illness to Need Mental Health

Like vegetables and exercise, mental health need not be one size fits all. There are many flavors of mental health practices -- ranging from seeing a therapist to meditation -- to suit all interests and abilities.
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There's one silver lining to the rise in horrific incidents of gun violence, bullying and suicide in the headlines: a resulting rise in public consciousness about the importance of mental health.

While it's encouraging to see nationwide dialogue about improving mental health programs -- from North Dakota to New York City to Capitol Hill -- most efforts suggest mental health is a cure for an illness, a sentiment underscored by the frequency with which it is presented alongside substance abuse and criminal behavior.

The problem is that as long as we continue to frame mental health as a treatment for a condition, we'll continue to limit its potential to help the sick, the well and most of us in between. Reducing mental health to a false dichotomy of healthy or ill doesn't match the reality that the quality of a person's mental function is better characterized on a dynamic continuum.

We have an opportunity to position mental health as part of a three-legged stool of preventative health and human well-being -- along with vegetables and exercise -- but only if we start to normalize it for all mental states. We all need plants in our diet, we all need to move our bodies and we all need to practice mental health.

By acknowledging mental health is not black and white and a tool we could all benefit from, we could also facilitate a dialogue about what "mental health" looks like beyond the absence of psychotic or dangerous behavior. Doing so would invite more people to evaluate their own mental wellness and ask questions that hopefully would reduce the stigma of mental health services and come with a host of quality of life improvements from better communication and relationships, to more balanced perspective and access to internal resources for stress management and increased ability to choose to respond rather than react to life circumstances.

One approach to elevate the value of mental health for all is to more openly share "healthy" experiences with therapy. As social entrepreneur Leila Janah said at the Wisdom 2.0 conference earlier this year, "Everybody should talk about [going to therapy]" just as we talk about how normal it is to go to the gym every day. Writer Kati Krause bravely echoes this perspective in talking about Facebook's mental health problem.

I first went to therapy in 2008 when I thought something was wrong with me as I struggled to "get over" a relationship. I had an inclination to see a therapist a decade earlier but was deterred when my well-meaning mom suggested that I instead read, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff). While I grew up in a supportive and abundant family, to no fault of my parents, the only feeling recognized in our house was feeling sorry for yourself.

It took me about four years to learn to value and recognize feelings, constructively communicate them and to accept that, in fact, nothing is wrong with me. I learned that it's not uncommon for individuals who grow up in families impacted by alcoholism to suppress feelings and for emotions to come out sideways in non-constructive ways -- as withdrawn communication, for example, or criticism or controlling behavior. I stopped resisting reality and learned to experience feelings fully. To paraphrase a champion of mental health, Brene Brown, I lost my fight with feeling broken but got my life back.

Exploring my mental health has led me to two conclusions. First, I can't overstate the life-changing impact of appreciating feelings. And, second, that it seems that a primary reason many people avoid seeking mental health support is, ironically, precisely the value that they'd get from it: overcoming the stigma that going to therapy would mean something is wrong with you would help you internalize that nothing is in fact wrong with you.

Like vegetables and exercise, mental health need not be one size fits all. There are many flavors of mental health practices -- ranging from seeing a therapist to meditation -- to suit all interests and abilities.

Innovation in tools for mental health shows tremendous potential for meeting people where they are and offering skill-building, practice-oriented mental health. Companies like Lantern, which offers an app-based facilitated curriculum experience based in cognitive behavioral therapy, can help people adopt practical mental well-being practices in 10 minutes a day. Other apps like Headspace and Buddhify present approachable, bite-sized meditation practices that can fit into and make micro improvements to a typical day.

What's important isn't the tool or type of practice; therapy, like asparagus or swimming, isn't for everyone. What is important is that we begin to change the way we collectively think and talk about mental health not as black and white, not as a prescription for the sick and not as merely the absence of homicidal behavior. This shift could help stave off gun violence, bullying and suicide but it also will improve common struggles like depression, divorce rates and even obesity. Mental health as an illness paradigm hurts both people who need urgent and acute help and becomes a lost opportunity for optimal well-being for everyone.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.