Reclaiming Good Mental Health

What is good mental health? We are all more or less mentally healthy, and this usually varies through our lives especially as we deal with difficult life events, change and so on. Whether we call this psychological wellbeing, happiness, contentment, positive mindset, all these terms relate to good mental health.

With our physical health, it’s part of our everyday discourse to be aspirational. We want to feel physically fit, energetic, strong, balanced in our weight, eating a healthy diet, supple, resilient and not prone to minor ailments. Sure we complain about our problems, and talk about how we can’t do all the things we know we ought to do. We know it’s not easy to stay physically healthy without working at it, especially if we’ve experienced health problems. We know that even if we reach the peak of physical fitness, we can’t maintain this for the rest of our lives without paying attention to it.

Research tells us that good mental health is even more beneficial than good physical health. A positive mental outlook increases the rate and speed of recovery from serious, even life threatening, illness. Psychological resilience and wellbeing gives people the strength to turn problems into challenges into triumphs.

Yet whenever I ask a group of people to tell me what words come into mind in relation to ‘mental health’, their responses are about mental ill-health! It’s as if the term has been hi-jacked to become totally problem-focused.

In the meantime, we’re experiencing an epidemic of mental ill-health. About 1 in 4 people are experiencing some form of common mental health problem such as depression, anxiety and various stress related symptoms. GP surgeries are overwhelmed with such problems, mental health services are only able to provide support for the 1% of the population with much more severe mental health difficulties, and there’s a plethora of largely unregulated services, treatments and remedies out on the private market. A recent research study showed that the majority of long term sickness absence from work resulted from stress related conditions.

The trouble with focusing on the problems and the pain, is that that’s what we become experts in. We’re looking for cures and treatments to fix the problem, instead of focusing on what makes for good mental health. We know that physical health is multi-dimensional – no-one imagines that pumping iron to build your muscles is a recipe for overall physical health, although it will certainly make you stronger for certain activities.

So what are the essentials of good mental health?

Connection is certainly one of the best known. Having positive close relationships is good for our mental health, as is having a wider network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances which will vary over time. Giving to others is another really important aspect of connection, improving our sense of self worth and wellbeing.

Challenge is about learning and development, it’s how we grow. For children, everyday brings new challenges, yet as adults we often become increasingly fearful of change, unwilling to learn new skills or put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. So expanding our comfort zone, sometimes in small ways if we’re feeling particularly vulnerable, will help develop our self-confidence and sense of personal achievement.

Composure means a sense of balance, and ability to distance ourselves from our thoughts and emotions. It means our ability to respond rather than react. This could be described as our sense of spiritual connection, which may come through a particular belief or faith, or may be found through connection with nature. A mentally healthy person will feel an inner strength of spirit, and find ways to support that.

Character relates to the way in which we interpret our experiences and our responses to them. We all have our own personal story, or stories, which we may or may not tell others. We may cast ourselves as the hero, the victim or the villain, and however we do this will impact generally on our mental health. Someone who has experienced severe life trauma may have great difficulty piecing together their story at all, leaving them feeling literally fragmented. Good mental health means having a strong sense of personal values, awareness of our own strengths, skills and resources, and personal stories of learning from mistakes, survival, success and appreciation.

Creativity represents the fun, childlike aspects of our mental health. As children we are naturally creative and we play. As we grow into adulthood, our creativity and playfulness is often discouraged or devalued, and this can cause great frustration, literally diminishing the capacity of our brain to function as well as it could. Exploring creative activities has often been found to have a powerful therapeutic effect, and good mental health certainly depends in part on opportunities to bring fun, playfulness and creativity into our lives.

These 5 C’s of good mental health offer a framework within which we can think about our mental health in the same way as we might our physical health. It’s pretty damned hard to be a perfect specimen of physical health,but then who needs to be perfect? Just like our physical health, our mental health is a work in progress and always will be.

In years gone by, many people with physical illnesses were treated cruelly because of ignorance and shame. I recall when cancer was spoken in hushed whispers as the Big C. Nowadays mental ill-health is the ‘elephant in the room’ which we need to be looking at long and hard, exposing to practical common sense and intelligent discussion.

World Mental Health Day on October 10 has been a timely reminder that good mental health really is something we can aspire to for everyone. Let’s make it so!

Carolyn Barber, Bsc (Hons), CQSW, is the founder of Wayfinder Associates, a social care training and consultancy business specialising in team development, independent supervision and staff wellbeing. As a serial social entrepreneur, Carolyn has developed community based programmes to promote understanding of mental wellbeing using positive solution focused approaches.

Biases Surrounding Mental Health

Biases are known to be ingrained in the human nature. Ironically, the bias starts reflecting in our approach to an individual’s health, even if the sufferer is a loved one, as we give priority to physical health over mental health. Many of the biases regarding mental health are inbuilt or are passed on from one generation to another.

Social media has a considerable role in propagating such biases. Without proper evidence, many crimes of violent nature, such as shootings, murders, etc., are often ascribed to mental disorders. As indicated by Jonathan M. Metzl, M.D., Ph.D., and Kenneth T. MacLeish, Ph.D., in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, most of the mass shootings in America are attributed to mental illnesses, and are often considered the root cause of violence.

The stereotype that “all persons with mental illness are violent” add fuel to the prevailing negative mindset against mental disorders. Another deep-rooted stigma regarding mental ailments is that people with some kind of mental deformity are incapable of independent living or doing competitive work. The fact that most physicians suffering from mental disorders such as depression or anxiety do not seek help, fearing that it would hinder their professional life, points at the deep-seated bias related to mental disorders.

Whether it is schizophrenia, bipolar or depression, a common perception about these mental disorders is that they are a character flaw. Depression, for example, is seen as sign of a weak-willed spirit. Also, in many instances, it is believed that mental disorders can be set right with attitudinal changes. For example, many believe that children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) need to be more disciplined and spanking is the best way to ensure that they behaved appropriately. Unfortunately, this tendency results in many with mental illnesses to be punished or discriminated against for no fault of theirs.

Implicit and explicit bias

Bias can broadly be divided into two types – implicit and explicit. It is a case of explicit bias when the individual is aware that he or she is biased against a particular person or group and uses it against a perceived threat. For example, painting all immigrants and refugees as potential sociopaths and antisocial elements is a form of explicit bias. According to Alexandra Werntz, University of Virginia and PIMH researcher, people are familiar with explicit biases, and “they are influenced by a lot of different factors, like willingness to disclose and social desirability.”

Implicit bias is, however, more difficult to understand because an individual is unaware of its existence. It is beyond the boundaries of one’s consciousness or awareness, but more likely to impact the way one behaves with regard to those with mental health disorders. For example, people showing implicit bias tend to believe that people with mental illness are helpless and negative, and should be blamed for their wrongdoings.

Determining the impact of bias on mental health outcomes

While bias is a common occurrence with regard to mental health, discriminatory behavior because of inbuilt prejudices could have a negative impact on the diagnoses and treatment. Past studies have indicated that many mental health professionals continue to endorse negative biases about mental illness.

Apart from the lack of empathy, a constant stigma surrounding mental disorders can result in increased anger and an unwillingness to help the patient in need. It was observed that the attitude of the health care professionals toward mentally ill patients reflected “paternalistic approaches.” While there was an element of empathy involved, in most instances it was believed that patients with mental disorders were incompetent.

Mental disorders are treatable

Whether it is a depression or an anxiety disorder or a neurodegenerative disorder, mental disorders are certainly not a character flaw. Recovery seems difficult as long as one keeps postponing the need to seek treatment. Understanding the importance of having a sound mental health can give rise to a new perspective on life that would further enhance the quality of overall health