Since March, we have been in lockdown. Now at the beginning of August, things are starting to feel somewhat more normal. Donning face masks we can still go grocery shopping and now even eat out with some friends at restaurants and bars. But we are still far from being back to normal – or a new version of post-Corona normal if that. With all of this uncertainty, fear of a virus that cannot be seen, and lack of social contact this can be mentally straining.
To dive more into mental health and wellness during COVID-19, I reached out to our own Professor Ella Roininen. She focuses on gender, diversity, and inclusion while being our academic Vice President. Today’s first blog installment will focus on defining mental health and what can affect it. So, what does mental health and wellness exactly entail? Here’s Professor Ella’s take on the topic…
Let me first emphasise that whenever I make a statement, it is related to my own social and cultural conditioning and context, and as such not meant to be a universal view. Take what is helpful to you.
To define mental health and mental wellbeing, I think the idea of a dynamic state of inner balance, whereby the individual can cope with difficult or unpredicted situations flexibly, is a good one . The WHO defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.” . We can also talk about emotional, psychological and social wellbeing, which relate to satisfaction and interest in life, feeling content and in line with one’s own personality and life, successful handling of the daily responsibilities and pleasant relationships with others, and being able to make a contribution and integrate coherently and meaningfully into society’s functioning . These three definitions were listed in an excellent student paper that I just read, so the credits go directly to that student.
Gotcha. How can mental wellbeing, in general, be both positively or negatively affected?
In all my responses, I’d like to stick to the idea of an individual who can basically be defined in the above terms, but has hit a rough patch or just wants to feel better with themselves. So I don’t speak about serious medical and/or diagnosed mental health problems and those connected to truly tragic and traumatic life experiences. These require individual professional help. I do speak from theoretical expertise, but also largely from my own experiences having trained these things for myself for a long time, having coped with whatever life throws at us or we throw ourselves in our lives, such as partnership abuse, violence, sicknesses in the family, financial difficulties, career and professional challenges, regrets, instability, insecurities, isolation, substance abuse, break ups, the works…
Having found the ways to deal with life’s ups and downs in my own view in a resilient manner, being able to keep up the above-described state of mental wellbeing, I would say comes from putting effort in self-reflection and self-knowledge, actively working on one’s mental wellbeing, getting help and support when needed, and studying the ways to create that dynamic state of inner balance. Also active nurturing of good relationships to family and friends, accepting that they also have their flaws and bruises, is crucial. (Needless to say, one should not accept violence and abuse and is advised to seek ways to get out of the influence of such people.) This, on the other hand, is connected to valuing oneself and one’s contribution in the world, wanting to be in the shape to live a full life and share love.
Theoretically speaking, to positively work on one’s mental wellbeing, we first need to realise that we are not victims of our emotions, but can train our reactions to the variety of challenges that life inevitably brings to us. I don’t think life is a smooth ride for any of us, and our role in life, I believe, is to grow with our years and experiences. We are not ready, we are here to practice, and we become better and better at it over time if we want to. We can learn to become more resilient – train the resilience muscle so to speak – by acquiring a set of tools that help us to choose a constructive course of action in the face of emotional turmoil. Sometimes it means trying to get through just one moment or one day at the time, until you see the horizon of hope.
Sometimes it’s the classic the glass is half empty or half full idea. If you catastrophise situations and react to a strong emotional impulse fast, furious and without self-reflection, you are likely to disturb your inner balance and your relationship to the world, and this spirals your well being downwards. On the other hand, if you take steps to learn how to take control of your thoughts after the initial emotional reaction, your inner balance will increase over time, and you learn to cope with life’s up and downs in a more constructive manner. This is called emotional maturity.
Taking responsibility for your mental wellbeing is the key, the same as with the physical wellbeing. This is not to say that your are not allowed to feel bad, angry, sad, etc., but that you consider if your reactions are proportional to the situation in question, and what underlying thoughts and fears are causing your reactions. One good way to start is to question yourself on the reality of your thinking. Is it really how I think it is, or can I think about it some other way? If you have a partner or close friend, you must have noticed how they sometimes see things from a completely different angle than you, from one that may seem even weird to you. This shows that your way of thinking and reacting is by far not the only one. There are options on how to choose to react. Self-knowledge helps you to identify your sore points.
Also place yourself in the shoes of someone objective and see the situation through their eyes. Think how you would react if your best friend would be in the situation instead of you. Especially in family relations or in partnerships, it is your history with the topic or person that is causing the turmoil, not the individual event itself, and here the above techniques can really help. Sound simple, I know, and actually it is. Mustering the effort step outside yourself is the most difficult part, and keep practicing. We like to have our familiar emotional set up. Even if it’s not healthy to us, it often feels safer than new, unexplored territories.
And always check: What is the worst that could happen, if…? Sometimes a thought seems dauntingly impossible to us at first, but a change of perspective is possible and can yield a whole different outcome to your life!
Similarly, we can go towards people and positive activities, or move away from them. It may sound boring and not very dramatic, but we can choose to be dissatisfied with life and its characters, hold grudges agains other people and stick to our complaints, and treat our minds and bodies lousy, or try to see what happens if we go in the other direction. That’s taking responsibility. I am not saying this is the only way to do it, but if you are not feeling well, it may be worth a try. I’m pretty sure you’ll see the results almost immediately.
Mental wellness takes work. It is not something that comes easy, and especially not for every individual during these pandemic times. Now we have an understanding of mental health and wellness and how they can be both positively and negatively affected. How do you stack up to what Professor Ella has mentioned today? Can you name a time or two when you noticed your mood changed recently due to how you perceived something to be? I know I can. COVID-19 has been a challenging time.
In the second part of this wellness blog series, Professor Ella and I will go deeper into specifically how COVID-19 affects us mentally and potential mental routines to help combat it. Until next time!
 Galderisi, S., Heinz, A., Kastrup, M., Beezhold, J., & Sartorius, N. (2015). Toward a new definition of mental health. In: World Psychiatry, 14(2), pp. 231–233. [online: https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20231 (last access 28.06.2020)].
 World Health Organization. (2005). Promoting mental health: Concepts, emerging evidence, practice. Geneva: WHO, p. 12. [online: https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/en/promoting_mhh.pdf (last access 28.06.2020)].
 Westerhof, G. J., & Keyes, C. L. M. (2010). Mental Illness and Mental Health: The Two Continua Model Across the Lifespan. In: Journal of Adult Development, 17(2), pp. 110–119. [online: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-009-9082-y (last access 28.06.2020)].