Posts Tagged mental-health promotion

Mental Health Does Not Mean Mental Illness

Published by — Why the paucity of information about maintaining good mental health?


I’m sure the ex-Congressman Patrick Kennedy had little to do with the copywriting for his new website, One Mind.  But I wish he’d read it more closely.  Kennedy has done great service lending his celebrity to advocating for the mentally ill in a number of ways.  He’s making the talk show rounds chatting up his book, A Common Struggle, about his own personal story, made fascinating in part by its star-studded cast of family members.  But also, he’s right on the money as to what’s wrong with our mental-health non-system and our attitudes towards those suffering from mental illness.

Perhaps most importantly, his signature legislation, The Mental Health Parity and Substance Abuse Equity Act of 2008, forces insurers to consider funding treatments to an ill mind on a par with treatments to an ill body.  The battle for actual parity is far from won, but Kennedy’s contribution is huge.

Now, via his One Mind site, Kennedy is raising money to conduct research into brain and behavior disorders.  And one of his major efforts will be to reduce stigma.

But here’s a problem: click on the One Mind tab marked “The Epidemic,” and there, in bold black type you find:

“Mental health affects more people than you think.”

This statement reveals a misunderstanding so deep I’d bet even Kennedy might not see it.  When people say “mental health,” what they mean is “mental illness.”  Makes me nuts.  What that sentence intends to say is that “Mental illness affects more people than you think.”  That sentence is painfully correct.  But even it masks the core of a serious problem.

Like having a body, everyone has a mind.  Both body and mind are in some state of health.  A body might have a cold or a broken leg or lung cancer.  Over the past decade, the public has become far more mindful of their physical health — their health, not their illnesses.

But what is mental health?  Even concepts like “substance-abuse prevention” focus on illness. Exactly as with physical health, nurturing robust mental health would also be cheaper in the long run, would improve the quality of our lives, and oh by the way, be a huge favor to the kids.  Helping children learn to be healthy by modeling good mental health habits ourselves is a two-fer — they get healthier because we’re getting healthier.

People and businesses both are changing their behavior to promote and enhance existing good physical health.  The fresh-food movement is now so established that McDonald’s is closing more outlets than they’re opening this year.  Millennials prefer to bike rather than drive, improving the quality of their air while exercising.  Yoga studios abound.

But I challenge you to identify the mental health equivalents of axioms like eat right, don’t smoke and exercise regularly.

Google “mental health” and you will find materials on mental illness.

researcher on TED argues that robust relationships will bring you happiness, but says nothing about mental health.  Happiness is certainly an indication of health, but it might be an unreasonably high bar for describing “mental health.”  Resilience might be better because it implies that mentally healthy people handle adversity more effectively.  The American Psychological Association has suggestions for promoting resilience, which include being hopeful and maintaining a positive self image. But what do you actually do to do that?  We know how to restrict calorie intake when we’re overweight.

Why the paucity of information about maintaining good mental health?  Kennedy likely would argue that it starts with being utterly unable to discuss mental illness.  Physical illness does not remotely carry the stigma that even, say, depression does.  So Kennedy’s One Mind website is right to discuss, openly, what Dr. Judith Herman calls the “unspeakable.”  I admire his advocacy for the mentally-ill.

But we will continue to ignore our own mental health, at our peril, if we continue to use “health” as a euphemism for “illness.”  From my child-oriented point of view, we’ll never be able to help kids thrive until we can help them maintain and promote their own mental health.

The task is to elaborate on the whole spectrum of mental health.  We need more vocabulary and images of those minor, but debilitating, habits of mind that obstruct the lives of “normal” people.  Adults and kids alike need a wealth of go-to-the-gym images for the healthy end of the spectrum.  Kennedy is elegantly positioned to do just that.  Here’s hoping he will.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Great Communities Are Healthy and Healing Places

Published by — “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

This year’s theme for the recent Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference was “Healthy and Healing Places.”

Dr. Richard Jackson was their on-point keynote speaker. A pediatrician and Master of Public Health, Jackson has worked to improve public health by tackling underlying conditions of ill health, namely physical environments and public policies that actively promote disease. He all but rails against the on-going degradation of children’s health — rising rates of obesity, asthma and mental illness. Many kids are growing up to be adults doomed to struggle with chronic health issues. Medical science can prolong the quantity of life, but only by restoring the health of our land, habits, and communities will the quality of our lives also improve.

He tells this story:

During his distinguished career, he directed the National Center on Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, aka the CDC. Their head office is in Atlanta, a hip, happening city, but also one gridlocked by bad urban planning and endless freeways — the poster child for urban sprawl.

One sweltering summer day, Jackson was stuck in traffic on an 8-lane highway watching an older woman trudge along the freeway’s shoulder, breathing smog, lugging bags of groceries in each hand. Jackson knew she was returning to her low-income neighborhood that had no grocery store — such places are “food deserts” — from a wealthier one that did.

“If she collapses and dies, it will be heatstroke resulting from an absence of sidewalks, trees, and good planning. Currently, the difference in life expectancy between people in poor neighborhoods and those in comfortable ones is 10 years.” Where you live can be very bad for your health.

By contrast, Jackson shows us an awe-inspiring example of urban planning that reversed terrible decisions made in the past. Historically, the Cheonggyecheon River ran freely through downtown Seoul, Korea. In the 1960s, city “improvers” poured concrete into its large bed and built an elevated highway. Then, in the 2000s, a visionary mayor wanted a more eco-friendly environment and so initiated the removal of the concrete and highway, and the restoration of the stream itself. Opposition was loud and strong. But the 5.8-mile linear park was a resoundingly-popular success. People stroll, bike, hang out, meet up, and have lunch. Instead of an industrial gash through the city’s center, people have a lovely greensward. Air quality improved. Downtown became more accessible by bus, subway, bike and foot, so traffic thinned. With more people using alternatives to cars, even the outer rungs of the city saw traffic relief.

Uncovering America’s rivers is one of Jackson’s pet goals. As a professor at UCLA, he fights with the state of California to uncover the Los Angeles river. Good luck with that. He’s got guts and vision, this guy.

So, giant Take-Away #1: communities should make all planning decisions with the health of their grandchildren in mind. Reviving our land’s health will take at least two generations, but we’ll reap benefits in the process too.

Dr. Jackson Take-Away #2: tax the bejesus out of everything that is bad for us. Start with sugar, which is killing us. Don’t even get him started on super-sizing.

“Our food system is designed to make us unhealthy. Things that are bad for us are half as expensive as they were in 1980; and the reverse is true. In 1983, 32 percent of the population reported having excellent life function. In 2010 the percentage dropped to 13. Smoking is down, but obesity is way up. In 1983, 17 percent of the population reported doing no physical activity during the week; in 2010 it soared to 52 percent.”

In 1960 our government subsidized neither fructose (sugar) nor ethanol (corn-based gasoline). Now the subsidies are huge. Conversely, fruits and vegetables get zero government support. Enormous subsidies go to the highway system — but not trains — even though car accidents are the leading cause of death among children.

Transportation and food policies are public health issues.

“The health people (doctors) are not having success at the end of the disease pipeline. If they could look upstream, they’d have more success. Systemic disorders (like obesity, diabetes, mental illness) require systemic treatment.” Instead, public agencies, doctors and therapists are each chasing after a variety of symptoms that have the same underlying cause.” Routine exercise, like walking to shop and do errands, would reduce cars, pollution, obesity, isolation, and the list goes on.

“There’s enormous political pressure to ignore (environmental) science. We don’t convey our message well. Honestly, just as one third of Europe died of plague, I think one third of the planet will die from climate change. We don’t like science when it hits us in the pocket book. And yet the Federal Reserve is worried about how to pay for future healthcare costs.”

Quoting from Proverbs, Jackson intones, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

So imagine a tree-lined walk, preferably by a river, made safe by its popularity, where an old Atlanta woman can wheel her groceries in a push basket, occasionally taking breaks on amply-supplied benches, perhaps running into a friend for a chat, to boot.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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