The term “mental hygiene” only occurred to me once I became aware of a department of the New York City government, called the “Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” (NYC DOHMH) When I heard about this, I started to contemplate those last two words, and their relation to one another.
In modern society, physical hygiene is commonplace knowledge. We know to wash our hands after using the bathroom with antibacterial soap. We know to take showers frequently to keep clean. We know to keep our homes neat and tidy, and not to leave food around, so as to not attract bugs. Doctors too, know that they have to sterilize their medical tools, and to throw away used needles and the like to prevent the spread of germs. We take these precautions, and so now we enjoy healthier lives and longer lifespans.
Unfortunately, there is no concept comparable to mental health at this time.
I do believe we are making strides though. In the 20th century, Freud and Jung, among others, really broke ground in acknowledging the mind as a force to be reckoned with. Mental health then became an aspect of the human Gestalt, one that requires the same care and understanding as does the physical body.
But what indeed is mental hygiene? Perhaps if we understand what it is specifically, maybe we can apply it to our lives. And if we did such, we could prevent bullying in schools. Or prevent depression and suicide. We could even prevent acts of discrimination, and intervene in the attitudes of stigma against the mentally ill.
It sounds impossible and idealistic, what I am suggesting. But we must have such a goal, if we are to ever reach for it and make it a reality. So to start in this direction, I’ll consider some ideas as to what mental hygiene is.
I think first of religion. Writings such as the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, or the Five Pillars of Islam, tell people how to live with an appropriate moral code. Perhaps “holiness” is an old perspective that approaches the concept of mental hygiene. Indeed, the decisions that we make, in regards to how we live our lives, are mental processes.
However, I don’t think that many religion leads to mental hygiene. I perceive religious types to be mentally backed-up, mostly because they are unable to follow certain desires that are not in accordance to their faiths. Take the subject of gay marriage, for example. A topic of condemnation, and a source of personal pain and fear for those who are gay and wish to pray it away. Some religious folks also find fault with others who are not of their faith, and so this attitude can harbor discrimination and prejudice. When considering these drawbacks, I don’t think we can say that religion and rules lead to mental hygiene.
Breaking away from the restraints of religion could possibly lead us to another idea of what mental hygiene is: personal freedom. In the USA, this is a popular idea. We feel that it is the pinnacle of existence, to say what is on our minds. Just look at Facebook, that forum for humorous memes, picture-quotes and half-informed blurtings of political opinion. Is this mental hygiene? It resembles confusion more than anything.
I also have a personal story to share about my own pursuit of personal freedom. Looking back, I am of the opinion that personal freedom is not the final frontier of mental hygiene…
In 2008, after returning home from college, despondent and friendless… I suddenly had a desire to revive my German, which I had studied in high school. Being not so mentally well, I found myself in shady corners of the internet, without even knowing that I was in danger. I went on shitty German sites where I chatted with horny German men. I even ended up webcamming with some of these shitheads, hopeful that I could learn a few new words here and there. But instead of feeling violated, I actually thought this was exciting and liberating, because I was pursuing personal freedom.
(Thankfully, I soon found a more reputable website to befriend native Germans: Interpals.)
Given this story, I think that pursuing personal freedom is not the answer to mental hygiene. Maybe this is because each of is is imperfect, and so we make decisions that are imperfect. We make mistakes, and mistakes can lead to serious consequences. The pursuit of an exciting sex life can lead to HIV. Stridently asserting one’s political convictions can alienate someone if he is surrounded by people who disagree. And then people often have a sense of entitlement… that attitude of “Me first, fuck the rest.”
What about racism and discrimination? You could say that this attitude is also rooted in a sense of “freedom” … the freedom to disdain others. And the need to convert others to your religion? That could be the freedom to encroach on other people’s freedom. Is this mentally hygienic, or “clean?” I think not.
I suggest another definition for “mental hygiene,” not previously considered:
Mental hygiene is self-introspection.
So many of us point fingers at one another. “My financial problems are due to my wife spending with credit cards” … said by a man who feels entitled to join a country club to check out hot attendants. “Don’t worry that the kids are making fun of you… they’re just jealous” … said by parents who dress a child badly for school. (That latter example is from my life!)
And yet, when we point fingers, we don’t look at ourselves. It amazes me, how people are unable to solve their problems by looking first at themselves. And it amazes me further, how this is such an easy skill to learn. At least, it was for me. I started therapy when I was ten years old. And in therapy, I learned to look at my own life, and then articulate it to a therapist besides, in order to achieve mental peace of mind.
If everyone knew how to look at themselves first, they would be more in touch with themselves. People would know who they are, at their core, and then they would be able to live their lives the way that is natural for them. And also… when one adopts self-introspection as a way of life, that person is able to grow and evolve. And a person also becomes empowered, and can steer and direct his growth in whatever direction he desires.
When one can take the reigns over her own personal growth, that is truly when personal freedom feels liberating. And when one has personal freedom, what naturally occurs is a set of rules on how to live life. We attempt to achieve mental hygiene by approaching it the way we approach physical hygiene, to some extent: by “changing” external appearances. (This is a broad sort of statement.) But truly, we must realize that mental hygiene is an inner process.
Admittedly, self-introspection is not the answer to mankind’s problems. It is also not the final answer to what mental hygiene is. But I think it is a step in the right direction. And even if it is not, it is a concept that has not been greatly explored. We can have many discussions about this idea, and that might lead to greater insight as to what mental hygiene is.