What is Mental Health?

By Joe Nelson | May 9, 2007 10:02 am

May is apparently Mental Health Month. I learned this from a presentation last week called “How Harley Davidson Saved Me From the Asylum.” It was presented by a man named Pete Feigel, who did a wonderful job of telling the story about his own depression and his struggles with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Pete relayed a story of a young man of 13 who struggled with depression and ended up in a mental hospital for a full year during his adolescence. He talked about his loneliness and a feeling that no one understood what he was going through. He also shared that, after his release from the hospital, a teacher would approach him and ask him about various motorcycles and Pete would brighten up and carry on for quite a while talking about something he loved (Harley Davidson was just one of the topics). Pete said this was a regular pattern and this helped lessen his loneliness and he believed in some ways that it kept him out of the hospital.

Obviously, it wasn’t Harley Davidson that saved Pete (although I ride and sometimes I think it saves me)—it was the caring of a teacher who seemed to understand the depth of depression and what someone needs at that time.

“Not being depressed” is not the definition of mental health. In fact, if you are depressed you can still be mentally healthy by attending to some of the variables that can make the situation worse or better.

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The first step is admitting you have a problem. In Minnesota, some people think that mental health is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. While this is an interesting concept, it usually doesn’t work for depression or other mental illnesses. They are not the types of things people just get over—we need to acknowledge a problem and have an idea of what we’re going to do about it. Naming it, talking about it, and seeking professional help are all good ways to start the process.

It is not “giving in” to admit to this possibility. Instead, it is the first step toward getting some help. Pete was a kid and his father was instrumental in getting him started in the direction of getting help. Pete’s depression was primarily a chemical imbalance, and many people with diabetes and depression also have a chemical issue.

Regardless of what it is caused by, depression needs treatment. The following things can be helpful to bolster your mental health:

The bottom line is you do not have to wait to just get better—reach out and, most of the time, someone will be willing to help.

Last, but certainly not the least alternative, is to get a Harley Davidson to ride. It worked for Pete and it works for me, so maybe it could be useful to you. (Obviously, I am kidding about this last one. Sort of.)

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Joe Nelson: oe is a psychotherapist in private practice in Minnesota, where he specializes in the psychology of chronic disease and sexual problems and works with couples, families, children, and teens. He has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1985 and has earned a master’s degree from St. Mary’s College Winona, a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and an associate’s degree in human services from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Joe has worked with troubled youth in Chicago and Minnesota and on a special project on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He was the first social worker hired by an affiliate of the American Diabetes Association. He worked at the International Diabetes Center for 20 years, directing psychological services there for 12 years. A Certified Sex Therapist, Joe co-developed the Sexual Health Center at Park Nicollet Clinic.

Having practiced meditation for over 30 years, Joe offers instruction in mindfulness-based meditation to patients in groups and as individuals. Joe is married, has a 23-year-old daughter, and enjoys scuba diving, motorcycling, golf, and being outdoors doing almost anything.

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