Most of what is presented to us as ‘mental health awareness’ is actually mental illness awareness.
The trend has been to tell people signs of mental illness to look out for. Because everyone experiences these things at times, we all dutifully notice them when they crop up and hopefully seek help.
This is generally a good thing, because there’s no doubt that seeking help at times when we’re struggling is a significant step in overcoming difficulties, given that we have evolved as a species who thrive on connectedness and co-operation in order to survive. The proverb ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ has undeniable merit.
However, given that a key finding in the evidence base that has led to the development of the Solution Focused approach is that we all tend to go in the direction of what we describe to each other, I can’t help feel that a more constructive balance in our awareness campaigning could be achieved.
My hunch is that if we encourage people to also look out for the signs of mental wellness, they’re more likely to notice and report that too. The evidence is that by doing so, we’ll become increasingly aware about how we’ve achieved our wellness, and our confidence in maintaining it will grow.
There are some other tweaks I’d like to see made to public health information messaging too. For example, in the way we report statistics. There’s an often-cited statistic about 1 in 4 people suffering with mental health difficulties. How often do we hear that therefore 3 in 4 people are doing ok under difficult circumstances? More discourse around how we’re collectively managing to be as mentally well as we are would surely be a good thing. This has already been happening at an academic level. The main findings from research into what the worlds happier societies are doing differently points to flattened hierarchies and more even distribution of wealth.
Political discourse cannot be separated from mental health awareness, because there’s no escaping the fact that mental health is a societal issue. Mental distress being too often incorrectly identified as originating only within unwell individuals is a damaging tradition. Simply put, if you have a growing proportion of your population living in poverty, you are going to have a growing proportion of your population experiencing mental distress. This isn’t because there’s a growing proportion of people who have a disorder. It’s because they’re experiencing a normal, healthy response to a set of circumstances which is threatening their survival. The priority here should surely be to address the poverty. Failing to do so leads to a situation where investment in mental health services is akin to opening a bath tap further without putting the plug in. With this in mind, I don’t think we can responsibly campaign for increased mental health awareness without including lobbying politicians to concentrate on social justice across all departments and remits, in the understanding that investment in any area of government which addresses social inequality, will also be an investment in the nation’s health.
Finally, I think great care should be taken around recognising diversity in how people experience and communicate their internal states. We need to be wary of blanket statements such as ‘someone withdrawing from social situations is a warning sign’ – it could be, or it could be a sign of someone taking positive action to reduce distressing stimuli. The emphasis needs to be on noticing changes in what is typical for each of us. Campaigners do seem to be recognising this increasingly though, which is good to see.
So, here are some things to look out for, which might indicate mental health:
- Feeling relaxed at the times you hope to (physically, through experiencing preferable thought processes, whatever ‘relaxed’ means for you)
- Felling excited at the times you hope to (however you experience ‘excited’)
- Sleeping well (whatever that means for you – some people thrive on less than 7 hours per night and having a spell of being awake and creative during the night, others feel unrested without at least 7 hours of unbroken sleep)
- Finding yourself interacting with others in a way that you find rewarding (again, there is variance in the ways people prefer to interact)
- Experiencing emotions that either make sense to you in context, or that you’re ok with experiencing in context
- Finding sufficient energy to perform the activities that are important to you
- Eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty
- Finding yourself inclined to look after yourself and others