Seeking help when you’re feeling down or blue for weeks or even months is something that many people feel uncomfortable doing. Most people do not think twice about looking for treatment for physical health problems like a broken leg rather than reach out for a mental health problem like addiction. Perhaps it is because a broken leg is visible and treatable in a straightforward manner and likely to garner sympathy from family and friends. Being addicted to alcohol may or may not be visible depending on how successful the person is at hiding the addiction, but it isn’t as straightforward to treat and it isn’t going to garner support from family or friends. People often think of mental ill health or addiction as evidence of a weak character or lack of willpower, but it is an illness like any other that requires professional treatment.

With mental health issues, stereotypes exist. And while one person’s stereotype of a person needing treatment for a mental health problem may be different from another’s, it is just that, a stereotype. More than 450 million (2001 WHO report) people worldwide suffer from mental health problems and that number covers an entire spectrum of mental health conditions. Given how widespread mental ill health is, it could very well be that someone close to you, your neighbour, your aunt or even your child could be silently suffering from it.

In a paper published in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in May, author Jegadeesh Ramasamy and colleagues from the Shri Sathya Sai Medical College and Research Institute, Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, wrote that in India access to treatment “does not guarantee that all children/adolescents suffering from mental illness will utilize such services. In fact, most of the time there is a significant delay from the patient side in accessing mental health services either because of lack of awareness or associated stigma".

Why do we delay asking for help? Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and founder, Mindtemple, a mental wellness clinic in Mumbai, says, “If you have a physical problem, a nagging pain in your body, perhaps you’ll go to a doctor to get it treated. But if you wake up with a sense of irritability, you don’t give it the same kind of importance. People try to deal with emotional issues thinking that they will go away with time, not realizing that they can magnify. And they don’t realize that a small anxiety summarily ignored can lead to depression or neurosis." This is so because mental illness, unless it is in its extreme form, is largely invisible and people don’t seek assistance until help is unavoidable.

Help is available in many forms. There are a bevy of mental health professionals available now than they were ever before: Psychiatrists, psycotherapists, behavioural counsellors are available across India, each useful depending on the kind of concern. Acknowledging that help is needed is an important first step and trying a couple of professionals to find the right fit is the second.

Arpita Anand, a Goa-based therapist, practises a brand of counselling, called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is based on the theory that faulty thinking patterns are at the crux of emotional problems. Thoughts precipitate emotions and these in turn play a role in how you act. So what you think about and how you think about it truly matters. Anand says, “Simply put, CBT is aimed at identifying faulty thought patterns and correcting them."

Mental wellness gets swept under the carpet because how thoughts appear seems like a mysterious process and we believe intuitively but incorrectly that just as a thought appeared, it will also disappear. Sometimes what starts as a thought can take a spiral downwards into a state of affairs where your mind is obsessing about that one thing, making it impossible for you to think or act on anything else.

It is important to remember that being able to complete your day-to-day needs doesn’t mean that you are mentally well. If you are physically in good health at a given moment in time that’s not a sign of being mentally well either. Though if you are chronically physically unwell over a long period of time, your mental health will take a beating too. What affects your body eventually affects your mind and vice versa.

Mental wellness is the sum total of how you think, feel and act as you go through your day. It is an ability to deal with life’s curve balls, life’s stresses with emotional resilience and flexibility. It is the ability to singularly focus on whatever needs attention at a given point in time.

Mental wellness is a state of mind that modern life makes challenging to cultivate. But we must cultivate it, if we are to stay healthy in body and mind. What affects your mind, affects your body and what affects your body affects your mind. Unless both are cared for, an illness in one will precipitate an illness in the other.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.