Recently, we experienced another tragic event: a mass stabbing at a Pittsburg-area high school. Just one week prior it was yet another mass shooting at Fort Hood. And before that a long line of devastating and preventable tragedies of the kind that are seemingly becoming more common by the day. The Navy Yard, Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine: once names that simply brought to mind placid locations across our great nation that, sadly now, conjure devastating memories of unspeakable heartbreak.
In the midst of all of this, a national dialogue has again begun to emerge. It’s one that, given the questionable mental stability of a great many of the shooters in these events, involves discussions revolving around our nation’s attitudes and policies regarding mental health.
~ Are we doing enough to treat the mentally ill?
~ How can we better screen people for mental illness?
~ How can we keep guns out of the hands of those with histories of mental instability?
And so on…
But here’s a question I’ve yet to hear: “What can we do to prevent mental illness to begin with?”
Seems logical. And truthfully, if we were dealing with an epidemic of flu, obesity, or some other physical malady, prevention would be at the top of this list. But strangely, our culture’s attitudes and habits pertaining to mental health differ significantly from those toward physical health.
In the realm of the physical, it’s universally recognized (albeit not always practiced), that if you want a healthy body, you’ve got to do preventative maintenance: brush your teeth, eat reasonably healthy food, exercise, get enough rest. Day in and day out we engage in a host of chores designed to help enhance the well-being and longevity of our physical selves.
In other words, we understand that physical fitness is a precursor to physical health. Yet, in matters pertaining to our mental and emotional selves, we find a different story.
Developing habits to nourish and exercise our mental and emotional selves is not something regularly considered by most Americans. On the contrary, most of our effort aimed at attending to our mental and emotional needs are more about coddling than fitness. Feeling stressed? Grab a beer with friends. Sadness got you down? Go see the latest blockbuster movie. Anxious about work? How about a round of golf?
Rather than increasing our mental capacity, we medicate ourselves. We engage in activities to make us feel better in the short run, but without really addressing the root problem which revolves around an insufficient ability to absorb and cope with life’s difficulties. It’s like addressing your weight gain by removing all the mirrors in the house. Sure it may make you temporarily feel better, but what does it do to solve the problem?
The truth is it’s an approach that all too often produces what can only be described as free-range, feral minds.
Mental Fitness Defined
To be clear, in this context Mental Fitness does not refer to the development of knowledge or even mental acuity. This is an important point. Many of the mental activities we undertake to develop our minds have very little to do with Mental Fitness, as referred to here. Examples of activities that DON’T dramatically increase our Mental Fitness levels include:
~ Digesting data as part of the learning process
~ Exercising one’s cognitive facility to make the mind more nimble
~ Participating in activities that soothe and nurture the agitated mind and emotions
This is not to say that these activities aren’t worthy and valuable, for they obviously are vital in our development as productive and happy human beings. Even so, for the most part, they are not helping to increase our ability to synthesize a relatively ease-filled experience in the most challenging of circumstances. And cultivating that ease-filled experience is heart of Mental Fitness.
The key to the understanding Mental Fitness is the notion of capacity. Mental Fitness is the measure of one’s capacity to weather life’s challenges without being thrown unduly off balance. It’s the capacity to withstand a layoff, to bear a health diagnosis, or to endure a financial challenge with grace, élan, and a sense of confident calm.