Dr. Patricia Mannix McNamara
Senior Lecturer, Education Dept. University of Limerick
I can be changed by what happens to me but I refuse be reduced by it.
Mostly we think we are mentally healthy because we do not experience mental illness. We are inclined to think that absence of mental illness means mental health by default. This way of thinking has its roots in the medical model, which has dominated our understanding of health, but this is really problematic because the absence of mental illness does not presuppose good mental health. We assume that we are experiencing physical and mental health and well being if we do not evidence symptoms of illness. How do we know? If we assume that mental health is the absence of psychological illness or distress then if we are meeting daily challenges isn’t that enough? Actually, the important measures are simpler:
- Do I experience moments of happiness daily?
- Do I feel joy?
- Do I love?
- Do I laugh often (really laugh)?
- Do I feel free to say what I really think and to act feely upon it?
- Do I have goals in life? Am I capable of meeting them?
We often confuse existence with mental health but absence of mental illness is not synonymous with mental health or wellbeing. Languishing is not enough. Passive definitions of mental health (absence of illness) do significant disservice to health gain. Some people like Corey Keyes and Maureen Gaffney argue that flourishing is what we should strive for. Flourishing they see as active living and reaching the most optimal level of human functioning. A flourishing person’s life is filled with happiness, goodness, creativity, growth, and resilience. Sound good?
The reason why this is so important is that as adults if we settle for existence rather than flourishing as our way of living, and if we accept existence as our standard of mental health then we teach our children that this is standard to live by.
Recently I was attending a conference about teaching and there was a young child present in the audience beside me. The speaker asked the audience a seemingly simple question: What makes a good teacher? The answers from the audience (of academics) were of course informed and included things like excellent pedagogy (teaching strategies); excellent subject knowledge and care for student learning. I turned to the child beside me knowing that they were best positioned to answer this question because they live with this every school day. So I asked him:
“What do you think? What do you think makes a good teacher?”
His reply was simple, only three words and quite profound:
“A happy one.”
It does not get any clearer than that!
A happy teacher is more than likely a flourishing one, whose professional life is fulfilling and who communicates mental health in their very being. This challenges us to ask are we happy? Do we experience moments of happiness daily? Do we communicate mental health in our very being?
Why settle for existing…isn’t flourishing worth striving for?