TIME TO CHANGE OUR APPROACH TO MENTAL HEALTH

We have recently lived through a period which is challenging everyone. Our children, our workers, our elderly. It is unlikely to get better before it gets worse, as the economic fallout hits us, and we are told that the next epidemic will be anxiety. Research recently carried out by the Health Work Company showed that one in three people were indeed struggling with their mental health in lockdown, with worries about loved ones catching the virus and uncertainty about the future being the top concerns. (It should also be noted that one in four had better mental health than normal – mostly to do with enjoying having more time).

The most basic understanding of our mental health shows that it is on a continuum. There are times in our lives when we worry, feel hopeless, helpless or anxious and if that is sustained, we can end up in a hole we can’t dig ourselves out of without significant help. I am not saying that there are not serious mental illnesses which we may have a genetic propensity towards. What I am talking about here are the very common struggles which we all have from time to time which may, if left unchecked, result in physical and/or mental illness.

And yet how many of us have educated ourselves or have availed ourselves of counselling or help to understand better how to we avoid this? How many of us proactively try to understand and be responsible for our own wellbeing and happiness? Do we know where to start?

14 years ago, I was living in Sydney with my then husband, in a state which would probably be best described on the continuum as languishing (moving towards ill). My marriage was ending, I was living far away from friends and family with no job; Rosie was a new-born and had almost died when she was born, and I had almost died giving birth to her. The doctor diagnosed me with anxiety and prescribed me tablets (SSRIs). I felt hopeless for a couple of years – as if my usually happy brain had been re-wired for misery. Every morning I woke up with a sick feeling in my stomach. I was envious of happy people and physically ill.

I didn’t, however, take the tablets. I started reading about the brain. How could I start to rewire it again so I could be happy? (I won’t at this point pretend this was easy or quick and it did require me to alter my circumstances as well as my thinking but that is another story).


Mind Matters
Hear more from Heather in SHP and Heathy Work Company’s’ video series ‘Mind Matters’, where she discusses dealing with anxiety and depression with colleagues Anna Keen and Lauren Applebey.

As I read and then started my masters in Applied Positive Psychology, I found it increasingly hard to understand why so little is understood about this area of human happiness and resilience. Particularly why this just isn’t part of our normal curriculum. The basics about how the stress response system works and how to avoid long term stress, that hedonic happiness is not the only way (life is full of light and dark), that resilience is something we can all develop tools in, that through cultivation of intentional activities we can become happier; all this is mostly news to the audiences we train. And they always love the concept of Post Traumatic Growth.

Why is it more important to understand geography and history and maths than it is to understand how to regulate our emotions, our locus of control? What after all is life about? How do you define “success”?

Many health and safety professionals have embraced the mental health agenda, but our perception is that most of the work to date has been to address the de-stigmatisation of mental illness and the ability to have a conversation with someone struggling, rather than maintenance and improvement of the mental health of our workforces. Indeed, the popularity of the mental health first aid course among health and safety professionals specifically is a great indicator of this. Whilst it is hugely educational (and some of our participants have found it transformational in understanding some of their own issues) it looks primarily at mental illnesses and only touches on how to safeguard our own mental health.

De-stigmatising mental illness is one thing. Understanding how to have a workforce which is resilient, happy, productive and well is another thing entirely and given the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves, the moment has come to focus our efforts in that place.

As organisations and professionals, we can’t force people to address their own wellbeing, but we can educate our managers and employees in how to do this and we can attempt to create the best conditions for thriving. I, as an individual, do not exist in a vacuum and nor does my wellbeing. It exists in relation to the culture, processes and resources of the organisation I work in, the relationship I have with my manager, my own resilience and external factors over which I may not have much control – like the economy and indeed COVID-19! (I am a bit of a fan of a branch of Gestalt theory SOS here – Self, Other, Situation).

As an organisation most of the training we have created and delivered to date has been in the field of manager and senior manager training. We have also done organisational work such as stress risk assessments. In the arena of individual wellbeing, all any of our health and safety customers asked us to deliver was MHFA and some basic mental health awareness.

Lockdown, the global pandemic and the huge uncertainty and stress this caused has led us to believe that now is the time for us all to grasp this important and missing area of education.

Whether the profession is ready for it or not, the area of individual resilience, wellbeing and human thriving is what we want to be developing, talking about and training companies in.  We know this is what is needed. I have always swallowed the argument whole that training employees in resilience is equivalent to just giving them PPE, when we throw them back into a toxic environment. However, training in MHFA is seen to be OK – which sits where on the hierarchy of risk control?!

If we go back to looking at the locus of control, where am I as a manager in control, where do I as an individual have control? Ultimately only for myself. Organisations come and go; my employment will come and go.

If as organisations we want to:

  • Protect our employees from illness/being off sick;
  • Retain and attract the best talent;
  • Create an environment of psychological safety – which not only impacts our accident rate but is according to google the best asset for any productive, creative team;
  • Have employees who are healthy and thriving.

Then we need to address that all-important area of education for managers and individuals which is missing.

At least my daughter is studying Philosophy and Ethics for GCSE and will start to take Psychology as soon as she can. Most of my generation did not have this opportunity!

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