Mental health and mental fitness

Until now, I’ve always thought about mental health as the absence of mental illness, much as I have typically thought about the absence of physical illness. In both cases, health is the default state or unmarked category.

But as I have gone through the Covid pandemic, and become more pessimistic about the state of the world, I have reached the view that a better analogy is with physical fitness. That is, something that requires sustained effort to achieve and maintain, and is rarely fully achieved.

In particular while I have previously thought about depression as a mental illness, it’s difficult now to distinguish it from ordinary sadness. My congenital optimism now seems more like delusion. Maintaining mental balance is now hard work.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the first to come up with this idea. Searching for “mental fitness” produces lots of hits, mostly fairly recent. The majority are boosterish, introducing and promoting the idea, rather than acknowledging the difficulties associated with it. Nevertheless, I’m hoping to get some useful suggestions. I’d be interested in readers thoughts.

PS: illustrating one of the difficulties of maintaining physical fitness, I came off my bike the other day and broke my wrist. So I’m attempting to blog by dictation. It’s a challenging mental exercise.

PPS just to reassure everyone. I am fine.

31 thoughts on “Mental health and mental fitness

  1. I’m attempting to blog by dictation.

    You poor bugger. A friend had shoulder surgery a few years ago and tried to keep professoring through it. That was very hard, a couple of times I had to go over and offer mostly moral support rather than technical.

    I assume you’re aware that your mood is probably crashing from lack of endorphins as well? They’re not the only benefit you get from exercise, but they are fun and also addictive. That daily hit of endogenous opioids isn’t coming in any more… I did my undergrad final exams with a crack in one of my shoulder bones and ended up with a synthetic substitute for a few days because the doctor was very firmly THOU SHALT NOT RIDE THY BICYCLE!

  2. Uncertain about bike riding? “Maintaining mental balance is now hard work.”. Ahh, those endorphins… my as well dicate a response to;

    “(Just Thinking of) Uncertainty Increases Intolerance of Uncertainty

    July 2022
    Journal of Individual Differences

    “Intolerance of uncertainty is a far-reaching – yet not widely examined – construct with clinical and nonclinical associations. The current study implemented a brief reflection on uncertainty hypothesized to increase tolerance of uncertainty. The group who engaged in the reflection ( n = 50) was compared to an active control condition ( n = 50). Results demonstrated the opposite of the primary hypothesis: simply reflecting on uncertainty significantly increased intolerance of uncertainty (vs. tolerance of uncertainty). Results also demonstrated that those higher in mindfulness were higher in tolerance of uncertainty, with the “nonreactivity” factor of mindfulness contributing unique variance. These findings suggest multiple factors that might contribute to both tolerance and intolerance of uncertainty. This study indicates that investigations of interventions that include training in mindfulness and its component of nonreactivity might be particularly warranted.”

  3. Seems to me that perfect physical and mental health are conditions virtually never achieved by anyone. Always, at least a minor physical or physiological ailment, or cognitive or emotional concern. Health exists somewhere along a continuum, e.g. from happiness to sadness through to depression at the illness end. I think that the medical definitions of mental illness such as in the DSM must locate the threshold for illness diagnosis at what is a necessarily arbitrary level of affliction. The medical profession will not agree. However there is rarely measurable pathology directly correlating with mental illnesses. And if there is a correlation between mental illness emotional and behavioural symptoms (such as with depression), and pathology (such as lowered endorphins or serotonin), which is cause, and which is effect?

  4. Has resilience been less valued over the last few decades, though perhaps the business need for it is now more explicitly planned …

    For your wrist, versions of the 80’s MicroWriter chording (→one-handed) keyboard are around if you wish. Commercial UKP 80 Arduiono – ask the University’s makers PI 3
    You may need to reflect the enclosures for the good hand, the CyKey seems to be symmetric
    From googling around it looks like there’s a lot of stuff around for making custom keyboards for gamers, but for assistive keyboards with large keys or key trays (so you could rest fingers/hands on the keyboard) are expensive

  5. “However there is rarely measurable pathology directly correlating with mental illnesses.” – Dave Smith.

    I really have to disagree firmly but politely with this statement. One, doctors do not measure and check these matters nearly enough. Two, they are only now learning to measure some of this stuff in neurological science. But let’s step back a bit first and consider our basic assumptions.

    Let us consider the term “mental”. In strict terms there can be no thesis of the “mental” existing at all independent of physiology and neurology. This is if one is a Physicalist or a Materialist. In that case, “mental” can only mean a constellation of physical objects and processes (in the brain basically).

    For the term “mental” to have any other possible content apart from the physical, one must be a “Cartesian Dualist” or something like that; proposing two or three substance types of the type physical (res extensa), mental (res cogitans), spiritual (res spiritus).

    Anyone adhering to a strict materialist premise like David Hume or a strict immaterialist premise like George Berkeley must ipso facto, be a Monist, viewing reality as a unified whole with unifying principles (different in each case) through the entire system of existence. Each type of monist proposes one connected system of one proposed “substance” type as per their substance philosophy.

    If one is a materialist paying attention to modern science and especially to neurology and physiology, one cannot escape the thesis that physical and so-called “mental” health are closely intertwined and involved in a single complex system of real, material sub-systems. Theories of “causes” apart from genetic / epi-genetic and deprivation, trauma, stress, diseases and toxins (all with effects physically detectable if the science is or becomes advanced enough to so detect) can have no weight at all. Freudianism (for example) is just so much pseudo-science nonsense. The ego, id and superego have never been found (except by theorising something intangible, objectively unmeasureable and then claiming to have found it. They are not tangible brain structures or brain processes.

    What is really there (in the brain) and what it relates to in terms of qualia (the subject’s own feelings and experiences) and also the subject’s observable behaviors is a still very much a work in progress. Here’s a good summation.

    This all suggests that “mental” illness or lack of optimal or acceptable brain function of any kind is complexly (not simply) related to genetic / epi-genetic factors, deprivation, trauma, stressors, diseases, toxins and maybe some other real factors not listed here. Thus, in my completely non-professional opinion, dealing with significant “mental” or psychiatric issues or illness must begin with;

    (a) a complete and thorough physical examination by a specialist physician including all necessary tests and appropriate brain imaging;

    (b) a complete and thorough investigation of the person’s personal, familial, work and other situational and support networks (functional and dysfunctional);

    (c) a complete and thorough investigation of the person’s habits of nutrition, sleep, exercise, work and recreation;

    (d) a complete and thorough investigation of the person’s cognitive and social functioning under various conditions;

    (e) complete, thorough and continuous reviews of the person’s medications and checks for over-medication by self or treating doctors and also for medication cross-reactions.

    Of course, all of this is never done for anyone. And until it is, this branch of medicine won’t be done properly. But I would say “please don’t a priori assume the existence of mental dysfunction without pathology.”

    Disclosure: I am not a medical doctor, nor do I have a science degree. I have suffered mental illness (as a young person for about two decades) so in that respect I know what I am talking about.

  6. This was the fundamental idea behind positive psychology as it took off in the 00s esp through the advocacy of Martin Seligman. Most books and articles about pp start/ed with just that observation, that there is more to mental health and wellbeing than the absence of mental illness

    I can’t recommend anything in particular in that field, however, as I expect that large chunks of it have been whacked by the replication crisis, especially the (as you say) boosterish parts and the monetisable/TEDable parts. (I did read some pretty damning things about some of the commercialised stuff but can’t remember details)

  7. Convalescence can be a long and difficult process, largely ignored by the medical profession. One good book I know on the subject is Oliver Sacks’ “A leg to stand on”, a memoir of his own recovery from a hiking accident. He is just about the most famous neurologist in the world, and was still treated as a child by his (technically skilled) surgeon. He got crucial and insightful support at different times from his physiotherapist and a café waitress.

  8. How certain are you that this change you perceive in your emotions has happened since early 2020?

    I ask bc I know a couple other people who say that they think that the world is getting worse, though around herrrrre, it is commonly dated to around November 2016.

    Other than that we absolutely must, must, must roll back climate change … I want and expect to see a full restoration of the Holocene, full stop … … I must say, I do not share this perception – people are not worse, and the world is not worse.

    It just may seeeeem that way.

    Also may I ask, are you getting less social contact? Bc that is, if i understand correctly, pretty much a straightforward cause of depression. (I have the same issue, actually.)

    I will say, I do share a slight decrease in my opinion of other people’s goodness, as a result of seeing idiots who lie about vaccines or about vaccine cards, or who won’t wear masks bc they just don’t want to bother – but it’s pretty marginal. Even those people, as annoyyyyying as they are, are probably not really that bad. And also probably, they were that way before, I just noticed it less. (Plus, I don’t like my masks either!! They stink! I want an elastomeric one and I am kind of annoyed that I am only just learning of same. And, try and find one!! Like, seriously. The m-pox thing has me even more annoyed. But, that is America. We love chaos! Plus, if I were a person in Africa, I’d be being annoyed by me right now! So, that is something to consider too. Humans are innately irritating and irritable, and we need to factor that into our expectations.)

    As for Voldemort, I see him more as a symptom and less as a cause. Though of course it’s arguable. Certainly, people are being more openly ugly now than pre-2016. But, their thoughts and feelings and attitudes were already there. The issue is, what will we do about it?

  9. Oh and also, maybe think about whether you are falling prey to perfectionism a bit.

    I feel that one ought to do physical activities for fun, not to be more “fit.” If you do something you actually enjoy, you’ll probably do it more often. And then you will become healthier and happier at the same time. So you are sort of tricking yourself into exercising. It works!!

    Are you in a cycling group? Two birds with one stone!

  10. Interesting post. There was a literature years ago on the “myth of mental illness” with R.D. Laing et al pushing this line. A lot of depression is a natural feeling sadness about things. That might make sense although depression obviously can become chronic and destructive. I like the emphasis on “mental fitness” and helping people to deal effectively with their emotions and preventing the slide into chronic conditions. That is not debunking the human value of experiencing the full gamut of emotions. I like the idea too of encouraging people to accept who they are and not regarding certain emotional responses as pathological – that in itself limits the destructive potential of certain emotions. Being able to say fairly neutrally “I feel sad (happy, depressed, anxious etc) ” is profoundly therapeutic.

  11. Boron? Not saying you have any deficiencies JQ :-)!

    “Pivotal role of boron supplementation on bone health: A narrative review

    “considering a dietary supplementation of 3 mg/day of boron (alone or with other nutrients); this supplementation is demonstrably useful to support bone health (in order to prevent and maintain adequate bone mineral density), also considering the daily dose of 3 mg is much lower than the Upper Level indicated by EFSA in the daily dose of 10 mg.”

    “Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology

    Volume 62, 
    December 2020

  12. JQ, “dictate [is so] – 1590s”

    21st Century dictation?

    “Best speech-to-text apps in 2022: Free, paid and online voice recognition apps and services

    By Brian Turner 
    last updated 19 May 22

    “This is not least because the technology has matured to the level where mistakes in transcriptions are relatively rare, with some services rightly boasting a 99.9% success rate from clear audio.”

  13. I like to keep in mind the conditions in which humans evolved physically and mentally and how far and fast we have moved from that .Its a bit like taking a wild animal ,putting it in a cage in a shed , and wondering why it looks unhappy.

    Contact with animals and the natural world is recommended ,as is physical exercise and face to face contact with other people. Other animals live more ” in the moment ” than humans do and this is generally recommended for human mental health .

    Its a special ability to just forget and allow yourself to be happy today .Everyone is different but for me the hardest thing from that point of view is coexisting with the way we humans treat the animals we raise for food.

  14. Better article w more references than most news items on…
    “Serotonin and the Unsubstantiated Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders

    Posted on August 3, 2022 by Yves Smith

    “But is this “something” true?  Current disinterested “science” basically says “No.”

    “But there is a long history here, and much of it makes perfect sense at the molecular and cellular levels.  The Chemical Imbalance Theory dates back to 1967, when the British psychiatrist Alec Coppen, following upon the 1965 work of Joseph Schildkraut on norepinephrine, published The Biochemistry of Affective Disorders in the British Journal of Psychiatry.”

    “Of 360 non-duplicate records screened, 17 studies (5%) met the selection criteria and were included in the analysis but subsumed within these 17 extensive reviews were more than 100 individual studies.  The analysis presented is extensive.

    “So, this extensive and comprehensive umbrella 
         “review of the major strands of research on serotonin“ shows there is no convincing evidence that depression is associated with, or caused by, lower serotonin concentrations or activity…no evidence of reduced serotonin activity in people with depression compared to people without, and methods to reduce serotonin availability using tryptophan depletion (remember that tryptophan is the “feed stock” of serotonin) do not consistently lower mood in volunteers…high-quality genetic studies effectively exclude an association between genotypes related to the serotonin system and depression.”

    Many other studies referenced.

    The 1967 study is too early as the extract states: 
        “The study of these biochemical events is clearly at too early a stage for speculations about the interrelationship between environmental and endogenous elements to be fruitful; this study must wait until the biochemical aetiology is clearer than at present.”

    “The Biochemistry of Affective Disorders

  15. That is a good way to look at a very difficult subject. Mental health may be fragile like a wrist bone. It could be that an accident of average intensity can be enough to break it down. The teenager who meets the wrong people, the twenty something who gets the wrong job, the thirty something who marries the wrong person, the forty something who invests in the wrong thing and the fifty something who lives in the wrong place. All only average accidents of life but still capable of breaking down mental health. It is the resilience of character and the support of true friends that will determine how bad this break affects long term mental health. It may also be determined by its affect on the ego. We all have our own self image. If this is challenged by our circumstances then mental health may become more fragile. I once had to remind coworkers that their persistence pranks may not be so funny if they caused real mental distress. I have see. a close relative undergo a full mental breakdown. He was young. But he had lost his mother when only ten years old. In times of mental stress some need a mother’s love to bail them out. I know I did when I was twenty-so. years old. Still mental health is hard to maintain. Avoiding boredom is one way to improve mental health but the. so is involvement with those you love. After that it’s all up to the individual to avoid depression any way they can. I gave up drinking. But there are other ways to do this vital act of self preservation. In summary, stay busy, remind yourself that people love you and avoid depression traps. Mental health needs constant action to protect and maintain.

  16. Replying to N: The big event for me personally was Labor’s defeat in 2019. That ensured that when Labor got in they would be useless, as indeed they have been. Implication is that I will be into my 70s before there is any chance of a government that might listen to anything I say.

  17. Thanks for lots of helpful. Comments. Again, I’m doing fine, just trying to readjust my thinking as I deal with what’s happening in the world.

  18. Pessimism and negativity are an occupational hazard for utopians. The 1968 student revolutionary cry “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible” is a recipe for depression and disappointment. Of course that doesn’t mean that utopian thought is somehow flawed – it is simply a consequence of thinking about better worlds once the difficulty of achieving them is acknowledged and experienced.

  19. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, about the Labor party. I do sympathize. It is pretty much the same for me on a state/regional basis here (while nationally, it is up and down). I feel out of step, and there’s really nowhere else to go politically.

    One of my challenges is that I need to find a group base to work from – even though practically it may not amount to much – bc just metaphorically yelling at the telly all the time isn’t good for me.

    I’m trying to find a group to volunteer with, too, and even that isn’t so easy. I will keep trying though.

  20. Delusion scale priors reset & schadenfreude.

    “My congenital optimism now seems more like delusion. Maintaining mental balance is now hard work.” – JQ.

    What worries me is that we are able to forget a pandemic, and remain willfully ignorant of our for profit torture policies.

    For most, balanace is a figment, a delusion, whereas imo JQ, your optimism / delusion scale is having a forced reset.

    I see your delusion as inflation … which will soon be in equilbrium again.

    Not so the many deluded who make for these stories.

    Willfully ignorant.
    Worse than Hitler & being a Potious Pilot

    “If I think about Hitler. Hitler was killing people. But this system made people kill themselves.”

    “As a sub-contractor, the Commonwealth did not have any contractual role with Wilson Security,” a spokesperson said.

    “Coalition used private contractor to collect intelligence on Nauru asylum seekers”

    Absolute Delusion

    “‘Venezuela and Australia are gone!’ Mike Lindell uncorks CPAC rant about countries being ‘taken by the machines’

    “MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell on Friday brought his personal crusade against voting machines to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he uncorked a conspiratorial rant claiming that the voting machines had completely overtaken dozens of foreign countries.

  21. JQ said “That [mental health] is, something that requires sustained effort to achieve and maintain, and is rarely fully achieved.”

    …”And, as Schaffner points out, if you’re not fighting your attitudes towards disease and your depression, you’re fighting modernity and an unchangeable immune system, and in that fight you’re always going to feel overmatched.”
    “Your Book Review: Exhaustion

  22. Mental health advice [and a plug] via Sabine Hossenfelder;

    “If you want to take a step back from current affairs, why not fill your mind with some of the big mysteries of our existence? It works like a charm for my mental health.

    “Why do we only get older and not younger? Are there copies of us in other universes? Can particles think? Has physics ruled out free will? Will we ever have a theory of everything? Does science have limits? Can information be destroyed? Will we ever know how the universe began? Is human behavior predictable? Ponder these mysteries for an hour a day and it’ll clear your head beautifully. I speak from experience.”…

  23. If everything – and I do mean everything – were conceptualised via a trauma lens, the world would be a better place. Or at least be aware of mental fitness, absence and effects. Eg – policy assessed for trauma and wellbeing.

    “People are seeing trauma everywhere and re-conceptualising their own experiences of misery and misadventure in its terms. They are doing so, at least in part, because the concept’s meaning has been stretched. More on that later.”

  24. Don’t forget reflection & empathy, curiosity & questions. And do forget judgement.

    Perhaps this fits into JQ’s “introducing and promoting the idea, rather than acknowledging the difficulties associated with it”, yet it comes with studies and is aimed at reminding us “adults” – parents – learning to flex their reflection and empathy skill ‘muscles’ is beneficial for child mental health and relationships.

    “It may take practice to learn to recognize your child’s unique emotional signals” to be able to to teach; ” reflection and empathy are skills you can build, like a muscle.”

    “Luckily, simply showing curiosity, asking questions, and listening without judgment are great ways to learn about your child’s thoughts and feelings.”

    “For Further Reading:”…

    “Mom Gets Me”

    Although my parents had empathy, they were way too busy working, and looking after the pennies, to use it often.

  25. There has always been uterly unecessary massive suffering of other people further distant from us*. That is no sufficient reason to get clinically depressed.Tuning the news about it out is legitimate self defense. Also for me somewhat odly, many people even can get better by thinking about others having it worse.** Regarding the op itsself: Moving from lots of sport to almost immobility on the other hand is a rather good recipe for getting depressed also up to the clinical point. Good odds that it passes fast however (even when the sport level aferwards is tuned down).

    Corona is trickier: The guide to not getting corona is almost identical to the guide how to get clinically depressed. To fend off the so we need to take the corona risk to avoid mental ilness reasoning in advance: This would only be the case to a very small extend in a society where all are equally carefull.

    *An asterix for everyone who might be in the us of reading this and still be suffering. Considering the topic is mental ilness it is worth pointing out that mental ilness while being filthy rich can with a non trivial probability also be worse than the average life in Liberia. It is just that many can be affected one way or another by looking at people with horrible material situations.

  26. The journey.
    And share more – food.

    “The Five Tools of Hedonic Design

    “Hacking the happiness treadmill”

    “In the 19th century, when European thinkers began developing the economic principle of diminishing marginal utility, they probably weren’t dwelling on its implications for the best strategy for ordering food at a restaurant. But nearly 200 years later, their work informs what I get for dinner.”

  27. I rather Farmhouse cheddar aged 24mths- almost eats your tounge while eating it.

    But if I broke my wrist…

    “Jarlsberg bests Camembert in bone-thinning prevention, study shows

    “The scientists assert the beneficial effects seem specific to Jarlsberg, a mild, semi-soft, nutty cow’s milk cheese.

    “In fact, the Norwegian scientists reported that Jarlsberg bested French Camembert to the point in which the group of Camembert eaters was switched to Jarlsberg six weeks into the study.

    “While both cheeses have similar fat and protein contents, Jarlsberg, unlike Camembert, is rich in vitamin K2, also known as menaquinone, the researchers noted. And, while calcium and vitamin D are known to be important for bone health, there are other key factors at play, such as vitamin K2.”

    “Effect on bone anabolic markers of daily cheese intake with and without vitamin K2: a randomised clinical trial”


    “Carboxylation of these vitamin K-dependentGla-proteins, besides being essential for the function of the protein, is also an important vitamin recovery mechanism since it serves as a recycling pathway to recover vitamin K from its epoxide metabolite (KO) for reuse in carboxylation

    “Osteocalcin. This non-collagenous protein is secreted by osteoblasts and plays an essential role in the formation of mineral in bone

  28. Quick compare. ymmv.
    I found Flinders Mental Health page better than UQ’s.

    “Mental Fitness – Lesson 7 – What is mental fitness?

    “Greetings and welcome to Lesson 7 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ course. If you are new to the course, check out the introductory post first.”

    UQ Mental Health
    International students

    Glad Im not an OS srudent! Via UQ link.
    “Find out more about UQ’s preferred overseas health cover provider. You can also manage your account, find a doctor or make a claim.

    Allianz Care Australia
    Get a quote
    Months – 24 months
    Number of Adults 1
    Number of Children 0
    Your policy quote
    $1,147.00AUD (includes GST if applicable)

    Big in surf lifesaving.

    “Gotcha4Life is a not-for-profit foundation with a goal of zero suicides, taking action by delivering mental fitness programs that engage, educate and empower local communities.

    “Our programs create meaningful mateship, build emotional muscle, and strengthen social connection in local communities. We focus on early intervention and the power of prevention through connection because we know we are all stronger, together.

    “Gotcha4Life was established as a not-for-profit foundation by media personality Gus Worland in 2017. ”

  29. How long after Spanish flu for all consequences to be quantified? Back then did they even try to quantify neurological & psychological effects?

    Seens like for Covid, ten years, fir a true set if consequences (JQ) or just a rolling set of consequences.

    And start training to boost mental health workforce now. We will most certainly need more psych docs in future.

    “Trajectories after SARS-CoV-2 infection: an analysis of 2-year retrospective cohort studies including 1 284 437 patients

    “Risks of the common psychiatric disorders returned to baseline after 1–2 months (mood disorders at 43 days, anxiety disorders at 58 days) and subsequently reached an equal overall incidence to the matched comparison group (mood disorders at 457 days, anxiety disorders at 417 days). By contrast, risks of cognitive deficit (known as brain fog), dementia, psychotic disorders, and epilepsy or seizures were still increased at the end of the 2-year follow-up period. Post-COVID-19 risk trajectories differed in children compared with adults: in the 6 months after SARS-CoV-2 infection, children were not at an increased risk of . ..”…

  30. Perhaps JQ, with your 4 day week, some economic art?

    Professor Robyn Clark says;
    “Participation in art has been shown to reduce illness and improve health in a number of settings. The Pinnaroo Project will measure, over time, how participation in art activities affects heart health and wellbeing “

    “The power of art and culture on health explored in The Pinnaroo Project

    Via the zero links (!) walled garden…,_South_Australia

  31. “Poor countries are developing a new paradigm of mental health care. America is taking note.

    “This is what the future of mental health could look like.

    “Specifically, these nations have been serving as a proving ground for a model called community-based care, where non-specialist providers or lightly trained laypeople — picture someone like your grandmother, not a doctor — deliver brief mental health interventions in informal settings like homes or parks.”

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