By Daniel Champer, LCPC, Intermountain Clinical Manager of School Based Services
The term “physical fitness” conjures up many different emotions and mental images. My mind immediately creates a picture of a bulbous nose, loud raspy voice, and a hyperactive whistle all encased snugly in a medium Gold’s gym t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts that leave way too little to the imagination. As you can tell, my mind takes me back to a time where physical fitness meant a series of tests in middle school that directly influenced your dating prospects. For better or worse, we all have a picture or an idea of what physical fitness is and what it means to us personally. Yet, crickets seem to suddenly chirp when the term “mental health fitness” is added into the discussion.
What exactly is mental health fitness? The term fitness is often described as “the state of being fit” and Dictionary.com defines mental health as, “psychological well-being and satisfactory adjustment to society and to the ordinary demands of life.” The term mental health fitness can then be described as a person’s current ability to emotionally handle their environment and the daily demands of living their life. However, we often struggle as a culture to define what that statement looks like in an individual. It is often easy to tell when someone is “mentally unfit” as evidenced by the prevalence of related terms in our everyday vernacular. We have all heard terms such as “lunatic” and “whack job” or phrases such as “She’s got a screw loose,” and “That guy is a nut!”
These crass descriptions are commonplace in our vocabulary, yet are often far from the truth and indicative of a lack of understanding of what mental health, or the lack thereof, really means. It is often easy to gauge physical fitness. Take a walk through any magazine isle or grocery stand check-out line and you will be inundated with images of what our society touts as achievement in the physical fitness arena. We gauge mental health fitness in our society in reverse. We have collectively decided what mental health fitness is not, yet we don’t have a cohesive image of what it is. We gauge our fitness level, and that of our children, through the lack of the presentation of indicators commonly associated with mental illness such as sleep deprivation, emotional reactivity, anxiety, depression, and a bevy of other widely accepted symptoms.
It is imperative, for parents, that we measure our level of mental health fitness with two measuring sticks instead of one. We need to create a way to measure when we, and our children, are achieving a high level of mental health fitness. Parents need to develop a sense of when their children are emotionally managing their environment and the daily demands of their life. This task may seem daunting but it can begin as simply as making daily conversations with your family a priority. The more that you understand your child and their life, the quicker you will notice if their mental health is beginning to suffer. Other indicators may be academic or athletic performance / participation, quality of peer relationships, general mood, willingness to be creative and take initiative, sleep duration and quality, personal hygiene, and energy level. This list is not exhaustive and you will be best served by knowing your child and how they function in family, academic, and community settings. It is also important to schedule regular checkups with medical and mental health professionals designed to screen for concerning and maladaptive symptoms. Parents often make it a priority to screen their child’s hearing and vision, so why would we neglect to keep a pulse on their mental health?
Parents can also influence their children’s mental health fitness by encouraging and participating in activities that have been shown to increase an individual’s ability to manage and excel within the daily grind. Purposeful relaxation and awareness of current mental health fitness levels just a few minutes a day can be incredibly beneficial to both children and adults. Positivity and affirmation are also pivotal in the development and maintenance of mental health. We live in a world and a culture that often glorifies negativity in all arenas, and this constant focus on the evil that exists in our world will undoubtedly degrade the mental health of all of its consumers. Parents can counteract this negative drain on mental health by intentionally and frequently affirming their children whenever an opportunity presents itself. Trying new things, reading, practicing good sleep hygiene, and playing games are also a few other ideas that can be used to encourage holistic health and well-being for their children. There is no perfect solution or pill that can be given to ensure mental health fitness, but awareness, intentionality and time will go a long way towards the desired goal.
Unfortunately, there is no test for mental health fitness that is forcibly governed by a whistle wielding, Daisy Duke wearing, coach for our kids. But, with a few simple steps, a little bit of fun, and an intentional look at our family’s mental health, we can make a huge difference in the lives of those that we love.
Daniel Champer is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who currently serves as the clinical manager of School Based Services for Intermountain in Helena. Daniel provides clinical leadership and oversight to teams of mental health professionals who provide therapeutic services in public school settings in the Helena area.