What Does It Mean to Be Mentally Healthy?

The more mentally healthy you are, the more healthy and constructive your reaction and response to upsets will be.

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May has been Mental Health Awareness since 1949.

I don’t know about you, but America is a country desperately in need of mental health with the increase in anxiety, depression, suicide and violence by mentally impaired people.

This year I have been pondering what it means to be mentally healthy (I’ve been a practicing psychiatrist for forty years and a suicide specialist for more than twenty years) and I’d like to share with you what I have come up with so far for your input and comments.

I think you’ll agree that upsets are inevitable almost every day for nearly everyone. It used to be that surprises were what happened every day, but given the tension and anxiety and uptightness that is nearly universal, surprises have now morphed into upsets.

Whether you call it surprise or upset, such occurences are unavoidable and you have no control over them. However you do have some control how you react to them. Even more so, you have more control how you respond to them.

Simply stated the more mentally healthy you are, the more healthy and constructive your reaction and response will be. The more mentally unhealthy you are, the more destructive – to others or yourself – or at the very least, counterproductive will your reaction and response be.

“Taking the hit” the key to mental health

“Taking the hit” means feeling the upset vs. denying it and even if you have an angry or fearful internal reaction, being able to “contain” those emotions, pause and then respond constructively.

When I have interviewed superstar athletes – who take a lot of hits – some have outlined their mentally healthy sequence – at least in their profession – as:

  1. Upset is when the unexpected and negative event happens
  2. Take the hit vs. going bonkers
  3. Be determined to get up even if it knocks you down
  4. Draw upon all the training you have done to have an alternate response
  5. Pivot to approach the new challenge you are facing with that alternate response
  6. Re-focus on what you’re about to do
  7. Commit by taking action

By contrast here are the sequences you follow if you’re mentally unhealthy that can go down paths of either anger, depression or anxiety.


  1. Upset
  2. Angry
  3. Hostile
  4. Retaliatory
  5. Violent


  1. Upset
  2. Defeated
  3. Withdrawn
  4. Depressed
  5. Discouraged


  1. Upset
  2. Fearful
  3. Anxious
  4. Panicky
  5. Avoidant

One of the most amazing mentally healthy responses to upset that I ever heard was from a friend of mine named Jim, who was the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company. One day he learned that his company’s biggest revenue producing product was physically hurting customers. He immediately took it off the market without asking permission from his Board or anyone and even though it would cause a significant loss for his company.

I called him to tell him how proud I was to know him and how much I admired him for his reaction and response.

He responded by saying to me, “Mark, I’m giddy with excitement.”

I replied, “You better close your door, because that sounds crazy.”

Jim told me, “We have a great company and we do everything right, but upsets and even some disasters are unavoidable. However every upset and disaster in my career has made me smarter and stronger, and I’m excited because I don’t how I will become both from this problem. I just know it will happen.”

Put yourself on a “72 hour hold”

Another tip that I have found extremely helpful for me personally in handling upsets in a mentally healthy way is what I call the “72 hour hold.”

When I was training in psychiatry, and psychiatric patients came through the ER and were an immediate danger to themselves or others, we would put them on what’s referred to as a 5150. That meant we would involuntarily hospitalize them for 72 hours, often putting them on a medication, but sometimes we would not even use medication. Just giving them 72 hours was enough for the destructive impulse to past and when they might come back to their senses enough to have a constructive conversation about what they should do next.

I have made use of the 72 hour hold on myself on many occasions. I do that when something upsetting happens and I say to myself, “Don’t do anything to make it worse for 72 hours.”

The fascinating thing I have discovered, is that in almost all those cases, if I can avoid doing something (unhealthy) to make it worse, like Jim, I will usually have a breakthrough to something very positive that makes me smarter and stronger that I never would have had, if the the upset hadn’t occurred.

If however I have slipped and done something to make it worse such as lose my temper or get drunk, I will subsequently be too busy apologizing to someone for my tantrum or feeling ashamed at getting drunk and that will often cause me to miss the breakthrough.

Becoming mentally healthy and following the steps and tips above are something that you can learn with practice, determination, pivoting away from your mentally unhealthy habits into mentally healthy ones.

To motivate you even more to do it, use the “buddy system” and reach out to a friend or family member or someone at work to support each other in becoming more mentally healthy.

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