Today is World Mental Health Day. I’d like to use this occasion to raise some questions around what we mean by mental health, and how we may address it in different way within our communities and organisations. Here we go:
1. How do we understand mental health?
This in itself can be a very stigmatised term, applied only for those who are seen as ill and needing targeted medical care.
But just as we will all suffer at some point from physical ailments such a cold or flu, or a broken ankle, so it is that every one of us will experience days of feeling sad, depressed, anxious, or insecure. These are all part of the human experience – we are not being fully human if we only show ourselves as being fine, happy and jolly all the time.
So, we can become more brave in showing up in conversations and personal and working relationships with however we are truly feeling – and welcoming that from others as well.
2. Does poor mental health need to be stigmatised?
In western cultures we often view our mental health through a clinical lens. We label our experiences as ‘depression’ and in ways that have very negative connotations. Because these experiences are often associated with something bad, we look for an immediate cure to get rid of it – either through unhealthy habits such as excessive drinking or drug-taking, or medical interventions such as anti-depressants.
Prescriptive medication may indeed be the best solution for many people. But what might we learn from other, non-western cultures that do not pathologise mental health in quite the same way?
Many societies in the Global South do not have regular access to medical care; perhaps also seeking help from a mental health professional is stigmatised. But nevertheless there are powerful coping mechanisms that exist – such as strong and committed family support networks, traditional healing through plants or through community rituals. Religious or spiritual faith also plays a big role in interpreting difficult experiences as opportunities for growth and transformation, rather than something that must be stopped at any cost.
Before we dismiss any of these out of hand, we might want to pause and consider how millions of people have lived with and overcome their suffering in situations far more challenging than anything we in western societies have lived through, often with very limited access to medical care.
3. Is my mental health just down to me?
Whilst in many ways I myself have bought into the idea that practices such as yoga and meditation, or seeking counselling or other forms of therapy, will help me overcome difficult mental patterns or emotions, I do not believe that happiness is purely an ‘inside job’. When we centre a western, individualised approach to mental health and wellbeing, we ignore the systemic factors that influence a person’s ability to feel safe and well.
My experiences – and, more so, the experiences of people from marginalised groups – are influenced by external structures and social systems that are enabling for some and silencing and diminishing for others. We see this in our workplaces and in our wider societies, where there is often a pecking order with whose voice gets heard the most, who gets the university place or the job promotion, and who has greater opportunity to progress in life. And also, who is the most likely to be stopped by the police, or fired from their job for making a complaint, or turned down for a promotion.
These inequalities have a direct impact on mental health and the ability to be well. It is important that we start recognising and challenging these differences and, in our workplaces, start calling for more equitable approaches to human resources and staff care. So that everyone has the chance to be themselves, to thrive and to grow in their work and social environment.
This Mental Health Day, I hope you can remember that you are not alone in your suffering. That other people feel this way. And that support comes in many forms – a starting point is to be brave enough to ask for it. This is one step towards challenging stigma, and creating healthier cultures where we are all welcome to be fully human and whole.