In bestselling wellness author Matt Haig’s latest book, there’s a “truth pixie” who says to an anxious girl: “Yes, the night has dark bits, but it has stars too…you will step outside and see from the park that the light is brighter when it’s next to the dark.”

For me these words really define the core of mental wellbeing.  We are all not always fine – and that is okay. The occasional dark days, as Haig puts it, make the bright days brighter. Many studies strongly suggest that a long-lasting stable state of mental wellbeing isn’t quite the norm and there is no ‘normal’ really. All of us are different in our own ways and most people go through at least one bout of depression, anxiety or another disorder over the course of their lifetimes. As Greg Anderson, one of America’s foremost wellness authorities, says, the key to mental wellbeing lies in the realisation that everything we do, think, feel and believe has an impact on our state of wellbeing – i.e. the body, mind and spirit are interlinked.

So, what is mental wellbeing? What does it feel like to be mentally well?

Often, we tend to think of health in physical and biological terms. However, our mental health plays just as big a role in our overall health.

We all experience sadness, grief, stress and anxiety at different points in our lives. Most of us have come across people suffering from one mental health issue or another. But do we really understand what mental wellbeing consists of?

The WHO defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which “every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

The corollary to these heavy words is that mental wellbeing is not:

  • The complete absence of any mental issues
  • The absence of stress, challenges, problems or adversities

Of course, feeling a sense of contentment and joy as well as engaging positively with the world around us is part of wellbeing. So are self-esteem and confidence. But that’s not the whole story. Mental wellbeing does not mean that we do not experience any negative feelings or do not have to face any difficult situations. It means we find the resilience and strength within ourselves to cope with difficulties and move past setbacks.

Mental wellbeing, like mental illness, manifests in various ways. Consider a few examples.

  • A person has gone through a bitter divorce but they are trying to move on in life by making it a point to attend plays, socialise and watch movies they love.
  • A worker has been laid off but is trying to leverage their experience and learning to chart a new career path.
  • A person is grief-stricken after losing a loved one unexpectedly but he gets out of bed every day and takes small steps to normalise their life.
  • A student was hugely disappointed after failing to obtain place at a desired university but has since come around to accepting that he will be going to his second-choice university. He has started looking into courses and life on campus there.

Haig put it more poetically but it is often stress and adversity that shape and sometimes improve, our wellbeing, if we give them a chance. The very nature of mental health renders any black-and-white definition impossible but to put it in very simple terms, mental wellness is all about how we respond to the difficulties and challenges life throws at us. This includes how we think, how we handle emotions and what actions we take when it matters.

Am I mentally unwell? How can I recognise if I am?

It can be tricky to say what is ‘normal’ and what is not. The distinction is clear in certain obvious situations but often, the difference between wellbeing and illness is vague, ambiguous and confusing. For instance, if you are afraid of being among people, are you merely shy or is it a case of social phobia? If your child gets tongue-tied in public, is she anxiety-prone or is it just her nerves? Are you simply sad or aggrieved, or is it a case of depression?

Unlike physical ailments, there is no easy test or way to detect if something is off-beam. However, there are certain early signs and symptoms, the knowledge of which can greatly help in understanding what’s going wrong.

Like physical disorders, mental illnesses can be severe in some cases and mild in others. Often people suffering from a mental illness do not look ‘sick’; some though might display obvious symptoms such as confusion, withdrawal or panic. There are many kinds of mental illnesses, the most common ones being depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Each one of these alters an individual’s thoughts and behaviours in distinct ways, although symptoms might overlap.

Early intervention can help reduce the severity, delay onset, and sometimes, even prevent a major mental illness. It is important to remember here that most major mental disorders do not appear suddenly. More often than not, the affected individual himself begins to notice it, or his family and friends might start to feel that things are not quite right before the illness takes on a more critical form.

Look out for these signs

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is good practice to consult a mental health professional if you are experiencing one or several of the following symptoms on a sustained basis. While experiencing one or more of these symptoms for a short while is not particularly indicative of a serious mental illness, it is better to get oneself evaluated if symptoms persist or if they are causing difficulties in study, work or family life. More immediate attention is required if the symptoms are inducing suicidal thoughts in the individual.

  • Dramatic or marked changes in eating, sleeping or personality patterns.
  • Rapid shifts in mood and a persistence of sadness or feelings of anxiety.
  • Withdrawal from social situations for longer periods and loss of interest in activities that were previously stimulating.
  • A sudden drop in efficiency, be it at school, work or sport; difficulty in performing familiar tasks.
  • Problems in concentration, logical thinking or memory, which were previously absent.
  • Slurring of speech, odd behaviour patterns such as obsessive hand-washing or excessive intake of alcohol.
  • Strong fear or unreasonable suspicion of others; a feeling of heightened reality.
  • Exaggerated and illogical beliefs about events, personalities or personal powers; a feeling of disconnection from oneself or one’s surroundings.
  • Apathy to everyday life and activities and extreme sensitivity to ordinary sounds, smells or touch.

Since it is quite normal to feel sad, confused, anxious, frustrated or angry often, how can one determine if these symptoms are indicative of a more serious problem or are simply a part of life’s ups and downs?

Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has a simple answer for this common question. He says it is time to get yourself checked if these symptoms “start to screw up” your life.

What causes mental illness?

Scientists are still struggling to get a complete understanding of what causes mental illnesses. Considering the complexity of our brain structure and the tricky ways in which mental illnesses show up in individuals, it is hardly surprising that the causes are not greatly comprehended, even today. But it is certainly becoming increasingly clear that many mental health conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, genetic and environmental factors.

Mental health professionals diagnose illnesses based on the symptoms a person has, how long the symptoms have persisted and how his life is being affected because of them. For this purpose, they rely on the criteria specified in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which was created through 10 years of collaboration between hundreds of globally recognised mental health experts. This apart, medical professionals are today being strongly advised to employ a multi-disciplinary approach to understand, evaluate and treat mental disorders.

What can you do to better your overall mental health?

Wellness practitioners keep stressing that mental wellbeing is not something you already have. Rather, it is actually something you aim for (and achieve to a large extent). As they say, no one can hand over wellbeing on a platter; it is up to you to boost it through your actions. And there are many ways to do so. Here are some:

Stay active: Regular exercise increases self-esteem, helps you concentrate, improves your sleep and keeps your vital organs healthy and mind alert. Find something you like doing and stick to it.

Eat and drink sensibly: A good diet is as important for your physical health as it is for your mental wellbeing. Your brain needs adequate nutrition to stay in shape and function well.

Drink alcohol with caution and moderation. Remember that drinking is not the best way to manage negative feelings.

Keep in touch: Spend time nurturing friendships and associations that fulfil you. Connect with people who matter to you. Often, just hearing a loved one’s voice goes a long way in alleviating distress. Keep lines of communication open.

Talk about your feelings, ask for help: There is nothing wrong in admitting that something does not feel right. It is okay to feel overwhelmed; it is alright to ask for help. Sometimes you may just need a sympathetic ear, other times you may need practical help to cope. Do not hesitate to ask for either or both.

Give and ye shall receive: This does not necessarily mean you have to work for a charity. It has been proven that even small acts of kindness have a positive effect on our wellbeing. A kind word to your harassed colleague helps as does a smile or a thank you to a service provider. Of course, larger giving acts, such as volunteering or working in a community centre can not only boost your mental health but also build valuable social networks.


Originally written 26th October 2018