There’s this popular idea that 1 in 4 people suffer with ‘mental health problems’, which has led to the instinct to try to identify which amongst us is that 1, so that we might help them.
Looking for signs of ‘mental health problems’, then, has become the go to starting point in ‘mental health awareness’, and ‘mental health first aid’. So much so that if you ask attendees at the outset of an awareness course or training, “what do you need?” they usually answer with replies about information on “what to look out for”.
This is a perfectly fine and natural response, especially given the cultural context.
Even though it typically refers primarily to looking for problems, because the prevailing cultural norm has been to assume that doing so is constructive, it can easily lead to an even more constructive discussion about what we might all notice about ourselves and each other than can be useful for us all to continue forwards in the direction of ‘mental health’.
This is what would happen if the facilitator of the course or training were using a solution focused approach anyway, otherwise it would typically lead to something more along the lines of instruction in a crude interpretation of psychiatric diagnostic technique, with the intention of equipping all present to accurately spot ‘symptoms’ so that they might go on to accurately signpost to ‘experts’ who can administer effective ‘treatment’, and hopefully, along the way, prevent harm and provide some support and reassurance.
There is a very nice intention behind such ‘mental health awareness’ campaigning, but often an unfortunately flawed approach.
The ‘1 in 4’ statistic most likely reflects the proportion of people identifying or being identified with the theoretical construct of ‘suffering with mental health problems’ and willing to disclose this when asked to in surveys.
In reality, because the one constant in life is change, everyone experiences the elements of any construct to varying extents at various times throughout their lives. Whether it defines who they are is a choice, and that too is subject to change.
Therefore either 4 in 4 or 0 in 4 is probably more accurate, depending largely on whether the construct is taken as a fixed and/or accurate interpretation of human experience.
Recognising that everyone is potentially suffering in some way in any given moment, so simply being as compassionate and respectful towards everyone around us as we feel able to be in the moment makes sense as the best mitigation. Looking for signs of managing to find ways to at least stop things getting worse, perhaps signs of turning things round for the better, or even of thriving, despite inevitably suffering at times, is a useful starting point in building confidence that ‘mental health’ is ahead.
Instead of trying to identify the 1 in 4 people to target for support, help or even for ‘treatment’, it is far simpler and more reliable for each of us to simply make a pragmatic choice to believe in everyone we meet’s capacity for change and usefully support each other by acknowledging each other’s strengths, resources and achievements as well as problems, no matter what statistical demographic any of us might appear to fit into.
Crazy as it might seem, we don’t actually need to try to find out who amongst us has something wrong with them, who has the problems, and how they might be fixed.
I once witnessed a person open up to their friends about suffering to such an extent that they were seriously considering suicide. Their friends instinctively hugged them and told them that they loved them.
A short while later they told me a lot had changed, they were no longer suffering to the same extent, and even when they were still suffering they remained determined to live.
I asked them what had made the biggest difference, and their reply was “realising that I am loved”.
This is just one example. In fact I’ve seen the same thing happen countless times with countless people.
We can’t always, for reasons including cultural appropriateness, hug people and tell them we love them. But we can always talk with everyone in the way we talk with someone we love.
So, back to that question of “what do you need?” Well in terms of awareness, and ‘first response’, there’s one answer I long to hear above all others, because the question of addressing ‘mental health’ only really requires us all to remember one thing.
As The Beatles reminded the world half a century ago, in an epiphanel moment as we all stood at various socio political and mass cultural crossroads, as we all do again today; “all you need is love”.