Written By: Laura McIvor
What is mental health? If someone asked you to define mental health what would you say? I asked this question to a few friends and they responded with comments like “being happy” or “not doing well”. These are both emotional states that are encompassed in one’s mental health, but there is so much more to it. In the past, the term “mental health” was most commonly tied to mental illnesses, which are very different things. Mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and so forth. If I were to ask you “what is physical health?” I’m sure no one would list off a bunch of injuries. They would often say it includes how you are doing physically, on average.
We will have days where we are not feeling well and might have a cold, while other days we feel great and go for a hike, but this is not what defines our physical health. For someone to be physically healthy, they will not necessarily be in peak shape 100% of the time. That would be nice, but for most it is simply impossible. Mental health is very similar. Life has ups and downs, and it is our ability to react and bounce back from life’s challenges that make us have a positive mental health. It is a continuum where your “life dot” is always moving. I relate it to physical health as it is easy for people to understand that this month compared to next they may be in better shape, eating healthier or vice versa, which is just like mental health in terms of it never being at a standstill. Mental health is starting to gain recognition, where doctors, physicians, and counsellors are trying a lot harder to find ways to help individuals build and strengthen their mental health.
My passion for learning about mental health grew greatly in the past five years. I knew daily I struggled to be happy, but never thought I had a problem or mental illness. I knew running made me happy, so I ran every day, but this was not sustainable. My first real injury took me on an emotional roller coaster, as my sole self-care practice was not available to me. I went to my doctor and it was explained to me that I need more than one thing to make me happy. This was obviously hard to hear as I am very social, going out with friends, and volunteering in my community. I did not understand why running was my only vice to control my emotions when they spiraled into a black hole.
I started reading more on self-care and what it exactly is. There are many things that make me happy, but not all of them regulate my mood or bring me peace. I decided to take up weight training. I figured I could workout whatever wasn’t injured and release endorphins, giving me a “high” and again bring me back to my normal. The problem is that exercise should never be the only self-care practice someone possesses. I again got injured from over training and had to completely stop. The struggle was real, and I didn’t know what to do.
I started researching and reading about mental health and what you should do to strengthen it, with the importance of self-care repeatedly popping up. I began to realize I needed to expand my self-care practices to more than physical fitness. I decided to take up cooking, which has always been one of my life struggles. Cooking is not something I enjoy, and I would be very content with simply eating a piece of toast rather than spending hours on something that never turned out. After six months of cooking different recipes three to four4 times a week, I realized something remarkable at the end. I still hate cooking, but more importantly, finding another self-care practice was not going to be as easy as I thought.
Next up, I tried reading more regularly and this proved yet again to not work for me as when I got super low, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a book. I spoke to a friend and said I was having an off day and they said, “why don’t you take a bubble bath?”. I started laughing and said, “I don’t have time to sit in a bath for extended periods of time during the day,” and my friend replied, “aren’t you looking for multiple self-care practices?” It clicked. I was looking for another running self-care. This was when I realized, not all self-care practices are equal. That night I took a bubble bath and enjoyed it. I found something that calms me that is not physically active.
A few years passed and I became a youth educator with the Crisis Centre. I had a full-time job but decided to embark on a new adventure volunteering as a youth educator in my spare time. I knew how difficult my high school years were and I wanted to help spread the message of hope and care to students at schools, while giving them strategies to build and strengthen their own mental health. I started giving presentations on the importance of self-care to students in grades 8 to 12.
These 90-minute workshops would explain that self-care is taking care of your mental health which means noticing your needs and finding ways to meet them. This could mean taking time for yourself, getting more sleep, saying no to hanging out with friends when you’ve been out every night this week, and so forth. My most shocking realization when giving these workshops was that students thought self-care was selfish. Self-care is a necessary key to having a positive mental health. That being said, we all have responsibilities and cannot for example take bubble baths all day. However, self-care is the most important thing I have found to building a positive and stronger mental health for myself so I needed to share my experience.
I spoke to the students about what defines selfishness, and the students would respond with comments such as “I have too much homework I do not have time for self-care”. I understood and after acknowledging students concerns discussions on why it is important to have multiple self-care practices always prevailed. I was able to help the students brainstorm quick ways to bring them peace at moments of need. I also would provide them resources and numbers to call if ever life became too difficult to handle alone.
We are always growing and changing and what makes you happy today might not necessarily make you happy ten years from now. I always tell the students in my workshops how much I enjoy running and ask them why this would be a problem if it was my only self-care. They always answer right away, “you might get injured and then you would have no self-care practice.” I always laugh and say you figured it out a lot faster than I did. Self-care has been the most important thing I have incorporated in my life on a regular basis. It is one of the keys to building and strengthening a positive mental health and should never be overlooked.
About the Author: Laura McIvor recently left her career in marketing to go back to school to become a teacher. After realizing her happiest days were those she tutored, something she had done for years despite graduating from University and starting a career, she made the plunge to change career paths. Laura spent a year running a program at the YMCA, working in particular with children with behavioural designations. During this time, and before, she also volunteered at the Crisis Center giving in class presentations to high school students on self-care. Laura focused on Social and Emotional Learning during her teaching program and is now a primary school teacher. She plans to enroll in a Masters Program on self-regulated learning this coming fall.
Thank you for your contribution Laura!