October 10th marks World Mental Health day. The objective of the day, as stated by the World Health Organization, is to “raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilize efforts in support of mental health”. Psychological wellbeing impacts on every aspect of our lives, from our performance at work to the quality of our relationships, meaning that even those ‘healthy’ individuals who don’t have a diagnosable illness can significantly benefit from learning about the human brain and its processes. So let’s look at the current state of awareness and explore what can be done to improve things.
The most recent National Study of Mental Health in the U.K. showed that 26% of women aged between 16 and 24 reported symptoms of common mental disorders. Women were three times as likely to report symptoms as men, indicating either that men are more taciturn regarding mental illness or that women are generally more susceptible to developing a mental illness, or both. Only one in three adults with anxiety or depression was found to be accessing treatment. Reports also show that the number of students seeking counseling has increased by 50% in the last five years.
These statistics might seem bleak. And in one sense they are, but in another sense they aren’t. The troubling finding in the study is that approximately only one in three adults with mental illnesses is receiving treatment; this statistic has to be amended if we are to improve societal wellbeing.
It is important to note that increased reportage doesn’t mean increased incidence. In other words, the number of students and young women openly recognizing and accessing help for mental illnesses in the aforementioned statistics attests to the fact that the processes of de-stigmatization and normalization, which follow from improved awareness, are already underway. Awareness around psychological wellbeing, figures show, can only be growing, and that’s largely due to the institution of initiatives like World Mental Health day, a campaign that significantly normalizes the discourse around mental health by getting people talking. However, it is important that as awareness grows and discussion proliferates that we don’t become too hyper-sensitized to mental illness and begin misdiagnosing; in other words, begin branding common, temporary, and ultimately harmless periods of negative emotion as symptoms of an underlying mental illness.
So in tandem with the movement to normalize mental health issues there must be an ancillary movement that works to help people differentiate periods of persistent but ultimately normal feelings of stress or anxiety from signs of a developing or apparent illness. This is important for two reasons: 1) it ensures the people who really need treatment have priority, and 2) it prevents those who don’t have a mental illness but feel anxious that they might do from actually developing an issue as a result of excessive rumination, which has neuroplastic consequences.
What Can Be Done
Kelly McGonigal has shown that thinking of stress as bad can affect health. Studies suggest, she argues, that those who believe stress is bad for them suffer an adverse effect on their life expectancy. McGonigal emphasizes that choosing to view one’s stress response as helpful creates the ‘biology of courage’, while connecting with others under stress can create resilience. “The old understanding of stress as an unhelpful relic of our animal instincts”, she says, “is being replaced by the understanding that stress actually makes us socially smart – it’s what allows us to be fully human”. McGongial’s point that reframing stress as your ‘friend’ offers practical benefits is corroborated by the fact that a certain amount of stress is essential for motivation and productivity. Knowledge like this shows how a deeper understanding of psychological processes holds great relevance in, for example, the workplace.
This is one means of confronting and then normalizing and adapting adverse thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. More broadly, the first step towards normalization is realizing that we all sit somewhere on a spectrum of psychological wellbeing. This spectrum is also a continuum that we move along, experiencing periods of optimum wellbeing to times of lesser wellbeing depending on our social, environmental, and various other circumstances.
The connection between psychological wellbeing and performance is increasingly clear. Since our environment plays such a pivotal role in determining psychological wellbeing, it is more than just the responsibility of the organizations, universities, and other institutions we are a part of to set up a holistic approach to improving psychological wellbeing: it is in their interests.
A holistic approach, which seeks to confront the individual and social challenges so that individual and group performance is optimized and wellbeing is supported, does not merely consist of a single presentation or the distribution of a handful of tools. Knowledge regarding human psychology, insight into the workings of the human brain and confidence in deploying tools and techniques to positively modify thoughts, feelings, and behaviour are essential. But to fully implement and yield the greatest rewards tools and techniques need support. That support, an here’s the key to a holistic approach, requires a sustained and concentrated focus on amending the social, contextual, and wider societal factors that are so powerful in influencing how we live. Such an approach is shown to be four times more effective for embedding behavioural change.
By using techniques like McGonigal’s for reframing stress, on an individual level we can improve our knowledge of how our brain works, identify certain adverse traits or tendencies we have and subsequently take steps to address issues so that we become healthier and more productive. This process normalizes what otherwise seem like inscrutably complex, uncontrollable and overawing psychological mechanisms. Individual awareness is key to precipitating change. But alongside this we need organizations to commit to implementing long-term holistic approaches that positively modify cultural and environmental factors. Not only would this help normalize and de-stigmatize mental health, it would also improve levels of productivity, making such a scheme so mutually beneficial for employer and employee that it’s perplexing why every company isn’t doing it already.