In response to an article I just read entitled ‘Are we at risk of talking so much about mental health, that we become desensitised to it?’ by Jessica Robson (via runtalkrun.com), I would like to weigh in and say that this is a perfectly acceptable question to ask at this time. While I do feel it’s vital that we keep talking openly about our mental health, I also feel we have to start thinking seriously about the future of this conversation and how it might evolve.
As Jess points out, this is probably a slightly controversial topic to explore. The power of the mental health movement stems from a pivotal shift in attitude within our society, and the realisation that in order to understand mental health fully, we all need to talk more. We recognise that in order to open up about our mental wellbeing we first need to feel like it’s safe to do so, and that we won’t be judged when discussing what’s going on between our ears. I agree with this philosophy completely, obviously; when it comes to mental health and particularly mental illness, opening up has been proved to be significant in taking those first steps towards recovery. I believe the question Jess has put to herself is an important one because I often see little distinction between the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’, and I worry that as much great work has been done to effectively reduce the stigma of mental illness, are we falling short of understanding the much bigger picture of mental health?
For me this all comes down to the term ‘mental health’. Here’s a quick experiment for you to try: look at the word ‘Health’ and allow a picture to form in your mind. Do you have it? What do you see? I’m going to guess you saw something like a runner; or a big old bunch of carrots; or Joe Wicks’ glowing face rising slowly from behind a colourful bowl of lentil salad, a bit like the sun baby in telly tubby land. How’s my aim? Okay now do the same again, only this time I want you to think about the term ‘mental health’. What kind of image does that conjure up? Not quite as cheery? I didn’t think so. THIS is why I worry that the conversation is in danger of losing its potency, because by discussing a finite side of it (although I agree it’s by far the more important angle, currently), I worry that we aren’t acknowledging a much wider spectrum; that being mentally healthy is as relevant to the term ‘mental health’ as being mentally ill is. Because the conversation is where it is at the moment, with the focus being very much on the ‘mentally ill’ side of things, for me it often doesn’t feel altogether right or even helpful to express my feelings about the smaller, everyday emotions I experience day to day, or the times where it’s all going quite well, as part of the same narrative. Yes it’s more important for people to feel that they can open up about the times they are struggling than to talk about being happy, content or ‘other’, but understanding that although the space between these two states of mind is incredibly vast it is of crucial importance to the development and success of the conversation that both ends are recognised as part of how ‘mental health’, as a term, is defined. The reality is unless we feel free to explore the whole spectrum of what goes on inside our minds, I worry that the term ‘mental health’ is unlikely to break away from being a synonym for ‘mentally unwell’, and therefore the narrative may only continue to resonate with those who feel sure of admitting that they are, or know of somebody who is, mentally unwell. The misconception that ‘mental health’ is a one-dimensional term that’s rooted in sickness, not health, is one I see all too often; I worry that if we don’t start including our more positive emotions within that same ‘mental health’ bracket, it could eventually result in a restigmatising of the term. That would damage if not eradicate the significant work that’s been done to more or less stamp out the stigma surrounding more ‘common’ mental health issues and, perhaps more importantly, threatens to do a disservice to the percentage of the population that live with serious, debilitating mental illness.
That we are all finally beginning to agree that depression, anxiety, grief, trauma etc is likely to effect the vast majority of us at some point in our lives, be it directly or indirectly, is an incredible step forward for society. I believe, of course, that we must stick fiercely to our guns and continue to speak openly about our mental health. I also believe that the time has come to explore and open up the conversation beyond where it is currently. We should be proud of how much we’ve achieved in this field, but at the same time we must avoid looking at where we are right now as the apex of a movement; we’re better off plotting the watershed breakthroughs of the last few years as a point on a much bigger mental health timeline and finding a way to move it forward. The door is wide open, and the exciting new attitude and understanding we possess is our companion. But now it’s time to walk through and begin to explore the infinite scope within the mind of a human being.
Why is it so important that we try to understand our minds?
I’d like to put forward an idea. I believe that everything in this world that’s been created by our species; government, law, ideology, institution, capitalism, technology etc etc; ALL OF IT can be attributed to the desires and emotions of individual human beings. The people that possess the most power and control achieved what they did by adhering to their primal need to become powerful, to be wealthy, to be respected; and their desire to be these things was born out of how they perceive themselves, and how they wish to be perceived. According to Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare (author of the eponymous Hare Psychopathy Checklist), there is little to no chance of any single person being a complete, 100% empath. Yes there are billions of people in this world who are empathetic, probably the majority of us, but we all have an agenda, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that; we need an agenda so that we’re able to steer ourselves towards a happy, fulfilled life; and that’s exactly the point. We know that in order to achieve contentment we have to make choices, and when it comes to our current or future happiness we won’t always consider how our choices affect other people, we go with our gut. And going with your gut means that the ‘right’ choice is often something you feel, physically, which means that your decision is likely to be rooted in an emotion; a deep ‘feeling’. A billionaire entrepreneur is the same as somebody who devoted their life to activism in the sense that they were both driven by an idea or an event that hit them so viscerally that it effectively shaped how they wanted to live their lives. Maybe the entrepreneur felt they had something to prove to a pushy parent, or a bully; maybe the activist empathised with a section of society who experienced the same injustices that they did. My point is, the world we live in has been and will continue to be shaped by the events of the past and, more importantly, our reactions to them. The closer we get to understanding this the better chance we have of understanding the complexities of the human mind.
This, I believe, is how we as a society can become more content with who we are and live a more mentally healthy life. Comparing ourselves to others before understanding the fundamental differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ will continue to be a gateway to low self esteem and depression until we understand the fact that we are each an individual, and not an overall embodiment of what human beings as a species are capable of. The reason you’re not a billionaire and that other person is, is because you simply haven’t lived the same life and subsequent reactions to the events in that life. That person who has 2 million followers on instagram while you only have 200 has got there not because they are better than you, but because their desire to get 2 million followers was born out of something that didn’t happen to you.
THIS is why it’s essential that the mental health ‘movement’, or whatever you want to call it, must NOT be trivialised and be passed off as little more than a trend. There’s too much potential. When an idea, or a product, or whatever, becomes successful and recognised by a mainstream audience, it becomes ubiquitous and therefore more open to opinion and criticism. The reason why certain successful entities continue to be successful after that initial breakthrough is because they don’t sit back and regurgitate that first idea over and over again; it’s not what society wants, or even how it works. We’re very fickle, human beings; whether it’s a product or an idea or a TV series, it simply has to evolve in order to sustain our interest. The mental health movement came at a time when society was ready to respond to it, and with the success of that initial breakthrough charities, advocates, campaigners and society as a whole now has a responsibility to not let the conversation to stagnate, but to evolve it and make it accessible to everyone. And if it’s something that everyone begins to understand and get behind then everyone benefits. The ill, the well, everybody. So yes, you can forgive yourself for feeling a little jaded when you read another post that says ‘it’s ok not to be ok’, but please, don’t turn over yet. You’ll miss what’s coming next. This is just the beginning.