What Mental Health Isn’t


In my life “Mental Health” has been an elusive thing.

Until just this past year every doctor I’ve seen has said something to the effect of: “Have you considered… <insert trendy new pill here>”

Just this past year I had a doctor tell me: “With your case history and the way your mom passed I don’t ever see you off an anti-depressant. If we had a pill to cure breast cancer and your mom had died of that, wouldn’t you take it?”

Sure, but it’s not really the same, is it? My mom didn’t just die because she was sick, it was this messy cluster of pain and problems.

Like losing my dad to a heart attack and losing parts of her daughter in a car/train accident while struggling with depression.

And this is the point at which mental health becomes really hard to figure out. Am I struggling because I’m sick or am I struggling because this is hard, because Life. Is. Hard?

I would never dream of deciding that for another person. Ever.

It is never my place to say “Here is where your life issues and baggage stop and your chemical imbalance begins so this is what you should or should not do.”

I can’t even figure that out for myself.

But I have figured out one thing in this past year of counseling and life and delving deep into past to discover some foundation core beliefs that are throwing me off.

I have figured out what Mental Health is not.

I always thought that mentally healthy people, people upon whom doctors would never dream of handing a Rx for antidepressants must ooze sanity, logical thought and even keeled temperaments.

But that’s not mental health… and that’s not humanity.

Here is what mental health isn’t, what it doesn’t mean:

It doesn’t mean you never yell at your spouse.
It doesn’t mean you don’t need to make lists to get things done.
It doesn’t mean you never sob for no particular reason over the state of things.
It doesn’t mean you never feel like hiding when the world feels too big.
It doesn’t mean you never get overwhelmed when life feels unstable.
It doesn’t mean you never need to call a friend, right now just to unload and vent.
It doesn’t mean you never feel like walking around with an L on your forehead because you feel like such a mess you may as well proclaim it.
It doesn’t mean you never feel like finding the bottom of a tub of ice cream

These things are not signs of mental illness, they’re just part of being human. Yet for so long I thought that they were things that were categorizing me as “not quite right” when they were normal, human reactions to the big feels of life.

I’ve come to realize that my old idea of what mental health looks like involved two things

1) Not really needing people.
2) Not feeling big feelings out loud.

This is not mental health, this is not human. 

Mental health involves healthy coping skills and healthy coping involves living well in community and feeling your feelings even when they’re really inconvenient.

And they’re going to be inconvenient.

It would be so nice if grief, jealousy, insecurity, sadness, fear, anger and frustration would only come out at the appropriate times but that’s not life, at least it’s not my experience of life on pills or otherwise.

Life happens at messy and inopportune moments and so does it’s corresponding feelings.

If I could share one thing on this topic, it would be this: It is good to feel your feelings. It is healthy, needed and natural…. normal even.

Life is a roller coaster of big feelings and we are meant to be stretched and grown and stressed and sad and thrilled. It’s terribly inconvenient but it’s really important to feel these and go there and know what’s really going on inside us.

We learn how to identify and express emotions in preschool and then sometimes it feels like we try to undo all that as grown-ups.

When your feelings get to a point where you can’t cope or where they are having a negative impact on those around you, then it may be time to seek help, but don’t feel all wrong just for having them.

It’s not my place to speak to anything you’ve discussed with your doctor. You will only ever find me supportive of your choices in that respect.

The only thing I really have to say is don’t assume that your big feelings and inconvenient emotions mean that you’re sick, feel what you need to feel, go to counseling, get to the bottom of it.

The journey to understand your feelings and negative beliefs about yourself, the world and God is worth every moment and penny you invest in it.

It’s the most worthwhile time and money I’ve invested in years and I suspect I will continue to invest in my mental health so I can be the big feels, slightly unpredictable wife, mother, writer and human person God created me to be.

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Just last month I went to a doctor who has seen me for the better part of my life and she told me this: “If you feel like the anxiety is too much, then call me and we will talk through it and figure out the best plan. But you seem to be really self-aware and stable,you’re doing really well.”

As I drove home, I sobbed, because in the journey of living my life and not following in my mother’s footsteps, those were some of the most beautiful words anyone has ever said to me.

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  • http://www.addingaburden.com/ Jill – addingaburden.com

    This might be my favorite post yet! Love it.

    This is sort of indirectly related, but a while ago I was watching a TV show where a character made a reference to the “artistic temperament.” Okay I admit it was Mad Men. 😉 The character was referring to someone who was very unhappy and the comment was, “I know it’s hard to watch but this is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you’re not an artist.”

    You did a post a while back about your need for creativity and I so relate! I don’t know if you consider yourself as someone with an artistic temperament but I definitely do (have it myself) and I know my emotional health suffers when I don’t have an outlet- particularly writing. It took me a long time to figure out that the BIG emotions I feel are exactly what makes me good at writing; when I numb them, I’m miserable- even as hard and scary as it is to feel them sometimes.

    Anyway- rambling. Thought you might relate. Thanks for the post! :-) xo

  • MatthewShedd

    I so appreciate your heart bleeding out onto this blog! It is also not my part to speak about what constitutes the need for medication or counseling or just a good cry (or yell). I do know that we have to stop treating mental health like a taboo thing, and we need to start having more open conversations like this about it! So thank you so much!

  • James Lambert

    Leanne, bless you, this is really good. I love the 2 point summary.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Thank you James, I do it for the skimmers and the readers alike 😉

  • Lisa K

    What great insight!

  • Stacy A

    You are so brave. I love the way you share your journey with us, all the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. It’s all beautiful because you’re being YOU. Thank you.
    I’ve had counseling in the past, sometimes it helped, lots of times I came away wondering what the point of it had been. I know I need it now, but I’m scared to go. I’m scared it won’t work. I’m scared my husband (who is generally incredibly supportive) will think it was a waste of money if it doesn’t “fix” me. I’m scared TO DEATH to see what’s under all the layers that I’ve dumped on top of the hurt so I don’t feel it anymore. (I still feel it, just in weird ways now.) So … your post has given me some courage. Not sure yet what I’ll do, but at least you’ve helped put a few more check marks in the “do it” column. ^_^

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      I am honored to have the right to speak into your life and your columns. I pray that counseling brings healing and that you find the right match of counselor for your heart.

      • Stacy A

        Thank you, Leanne.

  • Stephanie B.

    As a counselor who really wants to skip the medications and “sickness” talk (when possible at least, recognizing that sometimes, indeed, medication is the best option) and just BE with people while they are feeling the “big feels”… thanks for being open about the fact that that is indeed what matters. Keep feeling. And people will keep walking with you.

    • http://www.leannepenny.com Leanne Penny

      Thank you so much Stephanie for this comment and for what you do for your clients.

  • kim

    I don’t know your journey, I happened upon you on thru the sorty crunchy site. Anyway, about mental health, who knows what it is? The first time I went on meds was when my marriage was having issues and thinking it was my fault. They helped, but not really. Later, my 18 year old son died, thus throwing me for a loop and add to it another med. They helped, but, not really. My issues and problems and grief were still there. They were just, to me, made less important by the sorta fog I was in. Today, I am off meds. Am I cured or stable or any less of the mess I was back then? No. I’m still me, still messy and just, still me. I’ve come to a place of understanding that being, “still me” is good and it is who God has designed me to be. I’m working and raising my baby and doing the absolute best that I can, on my own and I feel that, that, is good enough.

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  • http://www.ilike.com/user/Sharon_P192 Sista42

    This post somewhat describes how I’ve shaped my beliefs in comparison with my reality in connection to traumatized experiences. Although I always believed in God and felt an inner knowing something or someone was watching over me. Not growing up practicing any particular religious doctrine I consider myself relationship to be more of a spiritual connection. – just stated this comment on believe.com