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What is mental health?

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September 9, 2023

An essential part of feeling and living well

When we talk about mental health, it’s often with a focus on mental health challenges and support. Those are important conversations to have, but we also need to understand what mental health is, and why we need to look after it.

Mental health doesn’t mean being perfectly happy in life, free of mental health challenges or distress. We all have hard times and challenges.

Instead, mental health is about feeling strong, resilient and able to be ourselves through the ups and downs of life’s journey. It’s what helps us learn, work and generally live well, making a positive contribution to our community.

Mental health is also something we need to look after as part of our overall health and wellbeing.

Why is mental health important?

When we look after our mental health, we look after our whole health.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Te Whare Tapa Whā, the holistic Māori model of health and wellbeing created by Sir Mason Durie, shows how our mental health is interlinked with all aspects of our wellbeing.

Te Whare Tapa Whā describes four pillars, or walls, that hold up the roof of a whare and keep it strong. Each wall represents a different dimension of health:  

  • Taha tinana – physical health
  • Taha wairua – spirituality and sense of self
  • Taha whānau – family and community
  • Taha hinengaro – mental and emotional health.

All four walls are needed for the whare to function as it needs to, and they cannot be separated. If one wall is not strong, it will affect the other three. 

Taha hinengaro, our mental and emotional health, involves communication, how we think and how we feel. Keeping this wall of our whare strong means we can better cope with stressful events when they happen, with strategies to manage distress and the ability to reach out to people for support when we need help. Having the support of whānau, friends, workmates and others when we need it makes a big difference. 

How to look after your mental health

Taking a holistic approach to mental health means looking after all four walls of Te Whare Tapa Whā. Each dimension of health contributes to our mental and emotional wellbeing in different ways. 

These are a few different strategies that can help maintain mental health and wellbeing. Find what works for you.

  • Connect with nature. Get outside to spend time in the natural world, even for short periods during your day.
  • Spiritual or cultural beliefs and practices. Keep up the things that have meaning for you.
  • Connect with people and your community. Get involved with a local sports team, have coffee with friends, attend a local event, or spend time with family.
  • Regular exercise. Any exercise is good and up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week is recommended.
  • Good nutrition. Eat a variety of healthy, nutritious foods each day.
  • Mindful rest. Take a pause from the busyness of life to check your stress levels, allow yourself time to switch off, and care for yourself mentally and physically.
  • Adequate sleep. Get the recommended hours of sleep for your age, starting a couple of hours before midnight to support your body’s natural rhythm.
  • Recognise negative stress. Use stress management techniques to help you move past it.

Learn more with MH101®

Blueprint for Learning’s MH101® workshop is focused on mental health, including how to recognise when someone is experiencing mental health challenges and how to support them, while maintaining your own wellbeing. 

Rural MH101® also looks at mental health but is tailored for rural communities with facilitators from rural backgrounds.

Mental health resources

The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand has ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, five simple yet proven actions you can use every day to help you find balance, build resilience and boost wellbeing. 

Just a Thought provides free, effective online therapy courses to help improve your mental health. Easy to use, anywhere, any time. 

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