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Mental Wellness and Why It Matters

Being a trusted adult begins with understanding mental wellness. Just like everyone has physical health, everyone also has mental health – basically, mental health isn’t something that just affects people with a diagnosed mental illness or substance use challenge. 

Someone who has a broken arm or asthma can still have good physical health. The same applies to mental health! For example, someone who has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder or PTSD can still be mentally well by practicing self-care and healthy coping skills. Furthermore, our physical and mental health are directly related and constantly interacting with each other. It’s difficult to effectively address one without addressing the other.

Mental wellness is an internal resource that helps us think, feel, connect, and function; it is an active process that helps us to build resilience, grow, and flourish. Mental wellness is a dynamic, renewable, and positive resource, as well as an active process that requires initiative and conscious action. 

When we experience mental wellness, we’re more likely to: 

  • Feel good
  • Be resilient and functional
  • Enjoy positive relationships
  • Contribute to society or community
  • Realize our full potential
  • Have a sense of fulfillment or coherence


This is a broad term used to include mental illnesses, substance use issues and the symptoms of mental illnesses that may not be severe enough for a diagnosis. It also includes crisis situations such as having thoughts of suicide or drug overdose. These challenges can affect your thinking, mood, and behavior.

The ACEs Study – In a 1998 landmark research study, Dr. Robert Anda and Dr. Vincent Felitti discovered that the health and behavior of adults is strongly influenced by their experiences in childhood. The more trauma and toxic stress experienced in childhood, the more likely those adults are to experience a variety of physical, mental, and behavioral health challenges. They called this phenomenon Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and since then, research has provided more insight about ACEs and how adults can build resilience in youth to counter them. 

These Adverse Childhood Experiences can also be understood as “risk factors” – or life circumstances that can hinder the development process for children and youth. They can be biological, psychological, related to the child or youth’s family experience, influenced by social peer groups, and connected to the community and culture. According to SAMHSA, the most common risk factors for a child or youth developing a mental or substance use disorder include:

  • Early childhood trauma, including exposure to abuse or neglect
  • Punitive or inconsistent caregiving, such as focusing on punishments or threats of punishment, not making or enforcing rules, or ignoring children/youth
  • Stressful life events such as moving, divorce, or loss
  • Learning disorders or academic difficulties may lead to children or youth feeling bad about themselves
  • Chronic medical conditions such as diabetes
  • Children and youth of parents and/or caregivers with mental disorders
  • Involvement in child welfare or juvenile justice systems or experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty
  • Hormonal changes may make youth more prone to emotional extremes. Biologically female adolescents become more prone to depression and anxiety
  • Orientation toward peers (peer pressure)
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity may lead youth who identify as LGBTQ+ to feel as though they do not fit in and may increase their risk of being bullied or harassed, which can lead to depression
  • Concerns about appearance may lead to increased depression and anxiety and some youth may try to diet, which may result in the development of an eating disorder or engaging in nonsuicidal self-injury (self harm)
  • Experimenting with alcohol and other drugs
  • Increased risk-taking behavior may lead to major adverse life events
  • Increased independence can provoke anxiety in some youth, as well as the pressure to succeed at school and elsewhere
  • Community factors such as neighborhood poverty and violence
  • Societal factors including norms and laws favorable to substance use, racism and other forms of systemic oppression, and a lack of economic opportunity

Note: someone having one or multiple risk factors does not guarantee that that person will develop a mental health or substance use challenge, only increases the risk. 

While there are circumstances that can increase the risk for developing a substance use or mental health challenge, there are also factors that we can use to decrease the risk, and keep youth safe, happy and healthy! Protective factors and healthy coping skills can build resilience, or a person’s ability to “bounce back” or overcome adversity. Some examples of protective factors can include: 

  • Having at least one caring, consistent trusted adult
  • Participation in group activities outside of work and school
  • Supportive family relationships and other social support
  • Religious or spiritual practices 
  • Practicing self-care, including physical exercise and healthy diet
  • Positive emotions and hope for the future
  • Active, healthy coping skills

Learn more about risk and protective factors here!

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