On mental fitness vs mental health

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 10, 2022

I really enjoyed John’s suggestion that the idea of mental health (=absence of mental illness) might not be as helpful as the idea of mental fitness (=something that requires sustained effort, and is hardly ever fully reached). I wonder, though, whether it might be a double edged sword.

The idea that attending to our mental well being is hard work is certainly something that deserves centre stage – both to get rid of the dangerous idea that it can be dealt with via a quick fix (be it a pill or a self-contained package of therapy sessions); and to acknowledge that, for those who struggle with it, it is something that requires ongoing and complicated labour. It most often involves false starts, dead ends, set backs, ups and and downs, and long phases where a lot of effort only produces incremental results.

On the other hand, though, the idea of mental well being as a state of fitness that requires sustained effort also suggests – much like the analogy with physical fitness which John himself makes – the idea of something which is in our hands if only we put in the work. In other words, it might put more emphasis on individual, atomised responsibility. Don’t be lazy: chuck the junk food; go for a run; do what you need to reach mental fitness.

This logic of individual blame and personal responsibility is the last thing that people who struggle with their mental well being need; yet, the idea of mental fitness rather than health is a powerful one. Is there a way of embracing it without sliding into this logic? Which kind of moves would that involve? What would we need to pay attention to? Interested in reading any thoughts on this.