defining mental health

Defining Mental Health: Words Matter

May is mental health awareness month and while it’s vitally important to shine the spotlight on specific struggles (anxiety, depression, ADHD, setting boundaries with toxic people, etc.)  I believe it’s important to also understand what the term “mental health” actually means.  The other tidbit of information I feel is vital to share has to do with understanding how past trauma, if not dealt with, can “pop-up” at any time in adulthood.

When someone talks about your mental health they are referring to your social, emotional and psychological well-being.

  • Social: How are your relationships?  Do you feel connected to those close to you?  Are your friends and family supportive or critical of you and how does it all impact your sense of self and well-being?
  • Emotional: How do you feel most days?  How do you cope with unpleasant or disturbing thoughts (past and present)? Do you know how to shift your moods or do you get stuck?  Do you experience feeling emotional highs and lows?
  • Psychological/Cognitive: Are you hearing voices and seeing colors that can’t be explained physically?  Do you have an attentional disorder interfering with your ability to process, store and recall information? Have you been subjected and/or exposed to abuse or trauma of any type that causes cognitive disturbances such as intrusive thoughts, uncontrollable anxiety, or rage?  Are you focused on the positive in life and have strong coping skills for dealing with added stress and pressure? Are your thoughts distorted or scrambled at times?

During each and every stage of life our mental health (social/emotional/psychological) and well-being is important.  If we are adults who endured childhood abuse or trauma and didn’t process that trauma somehow (either with a supportive adult or professional) it comes out later in life in ways you may not expect.

I enjoy using metaphors to explain concepts and this one has to do with a splinter. Imagine trauma is like getting a deep splinter.  If not removed, over time layers of skin build on top of that tiny piece of wood. All the while you’re trying to ignore it and pretend it’s not there….but the body knows.  The body knows this wood is a foreign object and should be removed so it starts to fester toward the skin’s surface trying to get out.  As it exits it damages tissue (depending on the size and number of splinters (trauma/abuse) this could literally take out parts of vital organs needed to simply breathe.  Yes, I truly believe emotional trauma can cause as much if not more damage to one’s psyche/soul than physical abuse.  Neither is desirable, and yet physical abuse is regarded as more harmful than a parent who is emotionally neglectful and/or verbally abusive and I beg to differ.

Every cut hurts.  Most cuts heal.  Each cut impacts a person’s trajectory in life with regards to their mental health. How and when you heal matters.  Every single person walking this earth today has stories in their life that they would have preferred not to experience, and those events were traumatizing.  We don’t get to judge what other people perceive as harmful to them.

That’s why it’s important to work on your past trauma if it surfaces in adulthood even if your mental health is more or less ok.  I believe the best time to go to therapy to work on stuff that “niggles” at you would be when you’re feeling good.  That being said, I believe in preventative mental health as opposed to traumatic breakdowns that inevitably negatively impact others.  Taking care of your mental health is as important as eating healthy foods and exercise for the body.  Reflect on what encompasses “good mental health” and see if you have any room to improve in certain areas of your emotional, social and psychological well-being.

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

Bethany Cook

View posts by Bethany Cook
Dr. Bethany Cook is the author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0 – 2.  She has been called in as an “expert” for Parade Magazine, Today, WGN-Morning News, PureWow, and more.  She is “officially” a full-time parent of two, a licensed Clinical Psychologist, Health Service Psychologist, and a Board Certified Music Therapist.  Currently, she is working on developing and producing TV shows centered on families and mental health among other things.  The goal of these endeavors are to help others build strong family systems and encourage them to live their truth in order to strengthen their human connections through self-awareness and positive communication.  Bethany is also a freelance writer and provides parenting articles on her own blog,, posts and interacts daily with followers on her Facebook group – A Perspective on Parenting and enjoys making fun and engaging content on her TikTok account (@DrBCook

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