What is Mental Health?

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.

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:

  • Exercise has an amazing impact on depression.
  • Increased support is helpful for getting through some tough times.
  • Good diabetes control reduces similar physical symptoms.
  • Talking with a good friend or family member can alleviate some of the pressures.
  • Talking with your doctor, nurse educator, or a mental health counselor can help.
  • If you have tried many of these steps and still are in pain, seeing a psychiatrist to discuss medicines may be most helpful.

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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  • Linda Mills Fouts

    Actually, Joe, I think getting and riding a Harley Davidson is an absolutely MARVELOUS idea! I’m taking steps to incorporate it into my rather nonconformist treatment plan as we speak — I have had bipolar disorder for 20 years and type II diabetes for about 15 of those years and I can tell you from first hand experience that the two are intricately linked. Back to the biker idea: I attended a bike show recently here in Atlanta, GA where I saw a helmet sticker that read “you never see a biker in a psychiatrist’s office” = I LIKE that! I am commenting on this blog in April of 2008, nearly a year after you wrote it, but I certainly hope you see my comment and respond! Meanwhile, happy riding to ya!

  • Joe Nelson

    Dear Linda, as spring approaches again, I am anxious to get on my bike and feel the wind on my face and enjoy the rumble under me. Winter has been long here this year and the longing for a ride has been high. I guess it is a treatment for depression. Sometimes we need to seek unconventional means to treat the difficult stuff we face so get the motorcycle license and find a ride you can love. Be conscious about what you are doing and stay mindful as you ride off into the wind. Safe riding requires a very mindful approach so good luck and safe riding as you take action in treating yourself well.

  • stewart

    I think it is a good idea to ride on bike when we feel lonely. One of the cause for mental health is depression,it reduses our strengths. so whenever we are in depression we will try to spend with friends or family members.

    Minnesota Treatment Centers

  • Diane

    Hallo Joe..

    Your opinion about mental health is really great. I am so lazy to have exercise, even though I know that is important thing to reduce my stress. I will try to do regular exercise. Thanks’ for amazing post.


  • Jim

    Hi Joe,

    Great article. I have been rather successful in make sure that I get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. I definitely need the exercise because my job requires me to sit at a desk all day.

    I think we definitely need champions of health care both in the government and more importantly, in the work place to affect some real changes.

    Thanks for writing this piece Joe.

  • Teddy

    Hi Joe,

    First let me say what an inspiring post. It is really just what i needed, having recently quite smoking and trying to get my life back on track this has inspired me to the next level. I was sick of not feeling good all the time, and I attend a lot of business meetings, so I always felt like people were looking at me in a funny way because of the smell and my yellow stained teeth. So i made it a mission to quite and start living a healthy life.