Geva L. Salerno is a mental wellness expert, consultant, and speaker. She is also a writer with a BS degree in biochemistry and an MA international policy, who has worked in a psychiatric hospital and currently leads an international network of women over 40. Passionate about understanding the world, she seeks to inspire others through her writing. She is author of a memoir, Center of Gravity, and the online course “Nutrition for Mental Wellness.” As a writer, her interest area is the intersection between science, spirtuality and psychology. She is a member of the National Wellness Institute and has lived in both India and Mexico. She currently resides in the United States.
It has been said that “the key to life is having a healthy mind.” I think that is certainly true. However, no one ever tells you how to have a healthy mind and I actually think that the reverse is far truer: The key to having a healthy mind is having a balanced, well-rounded life.
There is no clear definition of mental wellness and unfortunately the words mental health and mental illness have become almost synonymous in meaning. In the United States, we don’t have an agreed upon understanding of what mental wellness looks like and feels like, nor do we have an understanding of how to get there.
So, how is mental wellness different from mental health? In the west, mental health has been traditionally looked at in two ways: medically and behaviorally. Western medicine first determines mental health from the way a person is acting or interacting in society. If the behavior is fairly far from the norm, mental health is questioned.
From there, currently two tools are employed: psychiatric medication and therapy, both which are important keys to acute and severe situations. At the psychiatric hospital where I worked, I saw patients came in and who are so psychotic or suicidal that they were a danger to themselves and others; and the only way to protect them from themselves, was to medicate them.
From there, currently two tools were employed: psychiatric medication and some limited therapy, both which are important keys to acute and severe situations. However, mental wellness is far more than just the functional operation of the brain and behavior. Mental wellness is a state of being, reflective of how an individual is feeling, thinking, and functioning in the world, and in my opinion, takes into account the mind’s connection to the heart and how we perceive our place in the world.
It is a continuum between being totally unable to interact with the world on one end, to being open, clear, and flourishing on the other. Stability is at the center of the continuum with most of us moving along somewhere in between the two extremes. Mental wellness does not mean that one is happy all the time. It means that one has the resilience to bounce back from life’s major challenges.
My experience with mental wellness is both professional and personal. As a mental wellness practitioner, I teach patients and clients how to create a foundation for mental wellness using ancient technologies and new ways of thinking. I came by my knowledge the hard way. After growing up in a creative, but unstable home, and moving out at 17, by 21, the stress of life had gotten to me. I had a nervous breakdown and spent two weeks on the psychiatric unit of a hospital. It took a few years to recover. Basically, had to rebuild my entire life and begin again.
At 25, I enrolled in university full-time and studied biochemistry in an attempt to understand what had happened. It helped, but so did a deep-dive into spirituality, wellness, and psychology which followed. I spent the next 30 years learning what made me feel calm, what made me feel unstable, and what practices supported my mental wellness. I researched and experimented all along the way, using myself as the subject of my investigation.
By the time the pandemic hit, I already had a host of mental wellness practices in place, including good nutrition, sleep, therapy, a connection to nature, journaling, and yoga. I drew on all of these and even learned a few new ones. In this way, I managed to make it through and come out even stronger so that now I am able to share the practices and help others create a foundation for mental wellness.
What mental wellness looks and feels like
As humans, we know when we feel good or “well.” We feel both a sense of calm and an energy running through us, knowing that at our core we are competent to meet life’s challenges with what the famed psychologist Albert Bandura called “self-efficacy.” The mind is able to accept reality and there is an adaptability and flexibility, which supports the individual in meeting life’s challenges and the resilience to bounce back when life does not go as planned.
Where mental wellness comes from
The National Wellness Institute recognizes six dimensions of wellness: emotional, physical, intellectual, occupational, social, and spiritual. The first three are part of the inner life of the individual and the last three are more outer-looking. There are practices which support all of these areas, but in addition, I believe one must understand the self and personal growth is really important.
At our core, we humans are social beings, and our connection to others and our community is central to our feelings of safety and security. At the hospital, part of the therapeutic process we use is to help patients reconnect to society through our group activities. This connection often brings a healing at the heart level and helping patients to express themselves through creativity sometimes brings about healing at the soul level.
We actually have far more input and control over our mental wellness than most people realize. Some mental wellness practices like yoga and meditation, have been around for thousands of years; others are new ways of looking at things. The first step is to create a physical foundation for mental wellness. I learned early on that two of the most fundamental pieces of the mental wellness puzzle are proper nutrition and good sleep. When those two are in place, it’s possible to start putting in place the structure and routines necessary to thrive.
By diligently and consistently employing mental wellness practices, we can create the stability and resiliency necessary to achieve our goals. We just need the awareness of the practices, and the support necessary to implement them.