Breaking the stigma – do most of us have mental health issues?

I’ve been agonising for months over whether to write this post, largely as it may be misinterpreted, and people may have widely different views regarding the answer to the question in the blog title. However, a TV documentary we watched as a family this week made my mind up for me. More of that later.

I believe many of us have mental health issues, even if only at a minor level. The immediate question for me is just what the definitive description of mental health is and how does that truly apply to us all. Having researched this, I don’t believe there is a definitive description. Surely we all have different views on the nuances of what this means to us? Some of the definitions I found are listed below.

In many ways, mental health is just like physical health; everybody has it and we need to take care of it. Good mental health means being generally able to think, feel and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life. But if you go through a period of poor mental health, you might find the ways you’re frequently thinking, feeling, or reacting become difficult, or even impossible, to cope with. This can feel just as bad as a physical illness, or even worse. Mental health problems affect around one in four people in any given year. They range from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (Mind)

If you’re in good mental health, you can make the most of your potential; cope with life; and play a full part in your family, workplace, community and among friends. Some people call mental health ‘emotional health’ or ‘wellbeing’ and it’s just as important as good physical health. Mental health is everyone’s business. We all have times when we feel down or stressed or frightened. Most of the time those feelings pass. But sometimes they develop into a more serious problem and that could happen to any one of us. (Mental Health Foundation)

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. (MentalHealth.gov (i.e. the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services))

A state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, 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. (World Health Organisation (WHO))

A positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection to people, communities and the wider environment. Levels of mental health are influenced by the conditions people are born into, grow up in, live and work in. (The national ‘No Health without Mental Health’ policy)

What I found interesting is that many of the definitions place a positive slant on the definition of mental health yet so much of what we hear when the term is used these days refers to mental health issues. An academic article published in World Psychiatry in June 2015, titled Toward a new definition of mental health, makes the following observation (in reference to the WHO definition above):

This definition, while representing a substantial progress with respect to moving away from the conceptualisation of mental health as a state of absence of mental illness, raises several concerns and lends itself to potential misunderstanding when it identifies positive feelings and positive functioning as key factors for mental health. People in good mental health are often sad, unwell, angry or unhappy, and this is part of a fully lived life for a human being.

This, along with the definition from the Mental Health Foundation, are the ones I was drawn to most. Clearly we all experience down days, sadness, and a little worry / minor anxiety from time to time. These feelings are part of life, will frequently come and go, and aren’t a sign of mental health issues. However, when those feelings just won’t go away; when they dominate out thinking; when they linger for weeks or even months on end; and when there is a constant sense of worry, concern or even darkness; that, for me, is when we should start acknowledging that we may have a mental health issue. I don’t know how many people this applies to but I do know that since I started writing this blog, a fairly significant number of people have spoken with me about feeling they either currently have or have previously had mental health issues. Certainly a greater number of people than I ever expected.

We’ll never arrive at a single definition of mental health which everyone agrees on but that’s ok – it will always be subjective.  I suppose the key point isn’t about defining what mental health is – it’s about identifying effective coping mechanisms when it does occur and knowing what to do and who to talk to if any of us have issues. As I’ve previously written, if you are suffering with an issue, no matter how trivial it may seem, please try to find someone you trust who you can talk to. If you’re unable to identify anyone suitable, approach national organisations who specialise in this, or perhaps there are resources that may be available in your workplace. Alternatively, you may be the type to keep everything bottled up inside. You may think that works for you but it certainly isn’t advisable. This approach allows those feelings and concerns to fester, stew and dominate your thoughts if you let it. It’s always much better to talk, if you’re able to.

Finally, more about the BBC show which prompted me to write this. Some of you may know Alex George as the GP who became famous for appearing on Love Island in 2018. In February 2021, Dr Alex was appointed Youth Mental Health Ambassador by the UK Government – a role that sees him champion children’s mental health education and support in schools. The show, Dr Alex: Our Young Mental Health Crisis, sees Dr Alex talk about mental health issues and follow the journeys of young people across the UK who are living with mental health issues. He explores the wide range of difficulties they face and finds out how local charities are making a difference. The programme is especially poignant as Alex’s younger brother took his own life in 2020 at the age of 19, following a struggle with anxiety during lockdown. I mention the show here as there is a scene where Alex’s mum recalls her GP offering an explanation of mental health at a time when she was struggling to understand. She broke down when told as, for the first time, she believed she understood what mental health is about. This isn’t exactly a definition of mental health but it’s something I have to share here as it’s one of the most though-provoking viewpoints I’ve ever heard relating to mental health:

Within each of us there are 2 wolves. A wolf that lives on the plains with the wind in its face and the sun on its back, and a wolf that lives in the forest in the darkness, the shadows, and the doubts. Each day, within each of us, these 2 wolves meet at the edge of the forest and fight. Which one wins? That is easy – the one that you feed. If you find yourself dwelling on what you can’t do; past mistakes; worries about the future; or doubting yourself; you are feeding the wolf from the forest. Stop. Feed the wolf from the plains with positivity; live in the day; exercise; practice mindfulness. Watch out for the black wolf with your friends and family. Share this story with them and be mindful you stay away from the forest yourself. 

Certainly something for us all to consider. The iPlayer link to the show can be found here and I would urge you to watch it, especially if you have teenage kids and can get them to watch it with you. It will remain on iPlayer for another 4 months.

As always, thanks for reading, stay safe and be kind whenever you can.

Best wishes.

Mick

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