Defining mental health is complicated. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that it is the absence of symptoms of mental illness. It’s easy to see why because the mental health industry is powered by people who can no longer cope with their symptoms on their own and decide to try therapy to alleviate their distress. I also think the stigma that surrounds all mental health issues keeps people who are doing relatively well from considering the positive benefits they could get from going to counseling. Of course it’s true that severe symptoms often have to be treated and controlled and many conditions need medication but this outlook does not tell the whole story.
Thinking in an existential framework helps us avoid the error of believing that mental health is simply a baseline to reach where uncomfortable symptoms are nowhere to be found. A visual image to help you understand what this state would be like is a shiny boat floating aimlessly at sea without a motor or rudder. It looks beautiful but functionally it is useless and serves no purpose except to stay afloat.
Mental health is better seen as the presence of a striving towards growth and personal development, in spite of the various obstacles found along the way. This image is the dinged up but functional boat cutting a clear course across the ocean. The irony of making a decision for growth is that symptoms associated with mental illness will almost surely accompany the struggle. Any time we move outside of our comfort zone, which is what growth entails, we risk a great deal and the outcome is always uncertain. We go out on a limb and the limb can easily break.
Many people in therapy express the desire to go back to the way things were before the onset of symptoms. But often it’s exactly how things were before that led to the development of those symptoms. When you make a conscious decision towards growth instead of stagnation you are actually giving yourself permission to experience rough seas as a normal part of life. You decide to become more equipped to handle them rather than wanting everything to be smooth sailing. I read a cool quote to continue on with our nautical theme that says “Smooth seas never made an expert sailor.” The decision towards growth embraces the challenges of life rather than trying to avoid them and this is the existential definition of mental health.