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What is and is not healthy behavior?

This weekend at the Hilton Garden Inn in Waltham there will be a seminar for WOPI titled Faith Based Approach to Mental Health and Mental Health Research. There will be multiple speakers about various topics related to mental health and related topics. I wanted to speak today a little about mental health, cultural conflict, and families, which are some of the issues that will be dealt with in the seminar.

I particularly like Dr. Phil McGraw’s definition of whether or not something is “normal” (aka mentally healthy) or not. It is if something does not interfere with regular functioning or pursuit of goals it is normal, even if it is a little whacky. This allows for the uniqueness and variety of human behaviors, but clearly defines the boundaries of what is and is not healthy. Just because someone is eccentric, therefore, does not mean they are not mentally healthy. However, if they are exhibiting thoughts or behavior that impedes healthy functioning and pursuit of goals, such as cutting, purging, acting out aggressively, or continually crying, that would not be mentally healthy. If someone just has purple hair and some tattoos and piercings, you may not like it, but it is not mentally unhealthy in the context of the current society. I also remember from my coursework in college that what is and is not mentally healthy is defined by the society in which you live. What is considered mentally healthy in one culture may be looked at as psychopathology in another society because societies mutually define what is and is not healthy behavior.

This is where cultural conflict can come in. Particularly for people who are part of cultures that are not part of the overall mainstream Anglo Saxon protestant white middle class American culture on which most of our social mores are based in the USA. Cultural conflict is conflict that comes from cultural values and beliefs between two or more groups living in the same society that do not share the same beliefs. This does not have to be just from two or more countries, although this can be the way the cultures define themselves. It can also be two or more religions, or socioeconomic groups. There are many ways people define themselves culturally. Because different cultural groups have different cultural and social ideas of what is appropriate this can lead to behavior that is deemed aberrant by the larger society. This can be because of the cultural differences or because of the frustrations of switching between or trying to negotiate multiple cultures.

One of the most basic cultures, and really the first one we learn to negotiate through, is that of our family. Each family’s culture and values are unique. That does not mean that they are always easy to deal with.

Families can be a wonderful support system. They can also be toxic and make you feel absolutely mental. Granted there is a range between those two extremes, and most families fall somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. Most of us have to deal with families on some level. I like the idea that families are the universe’s way of teaching us to deal with people with whom we otherwise might not associate. In other words, you can pick your friends, but not your relatives. If we choose to maintain relationships with our families, we need to find ways to deal with them while maintaining our mental health. It is often that no one knows how to push our buttons like one of our parents, siblings, or children. The dynamics of a family are a microcosm for the way we deal with the rest of the world, particular when we move beyond the nuclear family and take into account extended family such as aunts, uncles, cousins, et cetera.

This is just a taste of some of the topics that will be on hand next weekend for the seminar. We really do hope to see you there. There will be a number of speakers with impeccable credentials from McLean and other places. It promises to be an informative weekend.

by Julie Morse

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