Mental Health Awareness Week has arrived. Already, there have been many brilliant articles written, personal experiences shared, and pledges made by organisations to increase mental health provision and awareness. This hive of activity helps to open the conversation around an often-hidden subject, helps to reduce stigma and helps to bring collective problem-solving in a way that is sure to have a lasting impact and shift the needle ever closer towards building parity between mental health and more entrenched health domains such as physical and dental.
The focus of Mental Health Awareness Week this year is Stress – a significant contributor to many of our lives – sometimes in ways that are helpful but often in ways that reduce our wellbeing and increase the likelihood of developing mental health problems. Research shows that two-thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes and that stress can be a critical contributing factor*. All true and important.
The focus on mental ill-health is reasonably logical - after all the impact of mental ill-health is irrefutable. However, it is just as important during this week to remember and focus on the whole of mental health, not only one part of the spectrum. Our mental health is such a unique and defining part of what it is to be human, and it changes day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month.
The American Psychiatric Association, the organisation that publishes the leading diagnostic manual on mental health problems, defines mental illnesses as:
“Health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behaviour (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and problems functioning in social, work or family activities”**
This definition is markedly different from the definition of mental health as defined by the World Health Organisation. They define mental health as:
“A state of mental and psychological wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, and can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Mental Health is determined by a range of socioeconomic, biological and environmental factors”***
I am certainly not advocating that we downplay the importance of breaking the stigma around mental ill-health, or the benefits of highlighting the terrible pain, suffering and death mental ill-health can cause. Instead, I suggest that if we want society to engage in the subject in a stigma-free way, we must present it for what it is – yes, a cause of pain and challenge but also a cause for celebration and wonder.
By taking a more aspirational viewpoint of mental health, we can motivate and inspire people to be more proactive in looking after their minds. After all, prevention is better than cure. This idea of presenting an aspiration to encourage preventative behaviours is clearly understood in physical and dental health. No one buys a toothbrush with a picture of bad teeth or a pair of running shoes with an image of a model out of shape. Instead, we are sold the perfect smile and the energised athlete - even though few of us will ever achieve either of these states.
By remembering that mental health is as much about our ability to thrive as it is about problems, the subject becomes less scary and more normalised. If we can achieve that, we will not only help people to become the best versions of themselves but will also ensure that when problems do occur people feel safer to come forward and access the right support at the right time.
**American Psychiatric Association (2017), https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness
***Mental health: a state of well-being, WHO, (2014). http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/mental_health/en/
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