Are we getting the mental HEALTH narrative wrong?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
It’s time to be aware of your Mental HEALTH! (But maybe not in the way you think!)
What does “Mental health awareness” mean to you?
“Mental Health Awareness Week” takes place in early May, but I’m no longer completely convinced it does what it says on the tin! As someone who works a lot with reframing language (eg. Using the words “effective” or “ineffective” instead of “Right/good” or “wrong/bad” because the former allows you to consider the context AS WELL AS keep your behaviour options open…what’s “bad” at one point may actually be very effective at another, but “bad” tends to make you avoid it!), I began to ask myself what is the current narrative surrounding the phrase “Mental health”…and why am I uncomfortable with it?
Well firstly, I was having a chat with my dad recently who said “Mental health has long been a taboo subject in Malaysia”; then I reflected on a question sent by a journalist “How do you help those suffering from mental health?”; and looked at the sort of things I get asked during Mental Health Awareness Week: “Dealing with depression”; “Managing Anxiety”; “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
Is the phrase “Mental health” being used in place of “Mental Illness”? or “Mental Health suffering”
“Mental Health” seems to be used in place of “Mental Illness”, or at the very least needs the addition of “Mental Health issues/suffering” in most contexts. (I understand why “Mental illness” is not a phrase of choice, as often it refers to diagnosed disorders, whereas, mental health issues can refer to just feeling crappy.)
Mental HEALTH is something to celebrate and strive FOR!!!
For me at least, mental HEALTH is something I relish, appreciate and strive every day to improve…but I tend to teach it under the guise of “thriving”, “happiness”, and “wellbeing.” (Yes, I’m part of this narrative too).
And I want to rewrite the chapter.
Mental HEALTH is something to be proud of, to work towards, to keep building…just like physical health. It often includes an element of emotional fortitude, resilience, self-awareness…and not everyone can recognise it in themselves, and in some cases, not everyone has the tools to even work to achieve it.
As a psychologist specifically known for a practical approach to wellbeing…no, let's call it mental HEALTH (and emotional strength), because that’s really what I mean(!!), I would like you to try the following things to see if realigning what you perceive as “mental health” in turn helps you become more mentally healthy!?
1. Recognise what being mentally HEALTHY looks/feels like to you
Do you even know what being mentally healthy is like? If not consider the words “contented”, “fulfilled”, “at peace”, “joyful”, “loved”, “strong”, “capable”…do any of those resonate? Mental health is not some unattainable figment – but a tangible feeling…as long as we learn to recognise it. Also, what you feel as mentally healthy may differ from my feeling. I feel at my mental health peak when I am energised, involved in something I’m passionate about, surrounded by those I love…I feel good at other times, but that’s when I’m really in my mental health zone. My husband, on the other hand, can’t think of anything that would give him more anxiety than a cheery “we ride at dawn” when he wants to sleep. His mental health peak is one of calm, of being at peace, of quiet accomplishment.
Bonus tip: A phrase I use when I’m trying to hear through the white noise of conflicting messages from the media, friends, or others at large is “Is this message for me or around me?”…if the latter, I keep focusing on what I know to be right for me.
2. Make a mental note of the times you feel the sensations/emotions that you enjoy
This will help you recognise more times when your mental health tank is topped up – and when you do, level up one, and savour those moments. Just an extra couple of seconds to breathe and think “Yes!” is enough for me. (I do it when I feel pleasantly full; when I’m out walking my dog; when I’m proud of an accomplishment). In those times, I’m feeling mentally well.
3. When your mental health takes a knock recovery is TWO fold: 1. Remove the suffering; 2: add the “healthy”!
Most of us know when we are not feeling great…many clients come to me with the phrase “my mental health is suffering because…” BUT, I ask again – do you know what it feels like to be in good mental health?? This is simply a coaching tool – if we do not set goals, how do we know we have achieved them? The success of therapeutic intervention is NOT THE ABSENCE OF mental suffering – but the PRESENCE OF MENTAL HEALTH!! (BUT, do we as mental health practitioners truly, fundamentally realise this on a formal – ie. this is my manifesto of counselling – basis!? I have come to this “awareness” recently, and I’ve worked in the field of wellbeing support for over 20 years!) Yes, we can give tools to remove the issues eg: stressed? Try the “do/delay/delegate/delete” quadrant to prioritise; BUT then what – so you get those priorities in order, what do most of you do…you go and fill your spare time with more things because you can’t seem to shake the feeling of guilt that you just aren’t “busy”!?
Adding the “healthy” is about you going back to points 1 and 2 and after deleting the tasks you don’t want to do, filling the space with mental health energisers – which can also include working towards new goals for you.
So try this:
1: Use the quadrant to divide your tasks and either do/delegate/delay or delete them
2: With the time and space you have cleared think about what makes you feel great
3: Choose one of those things and include that to your priorities (before your people pleasing self – not conducive to mental health – says yes to anything it resents or regrets).
4: And if you worry about pt3 being “selfish” – the more mentally healthy you feel, the better you are when you do help others!
4. ADOPT mental health today
In “The Leader’s Guide to Resilience” I set out a simple tool that underpins everything I do, and despite it being a tough year, I think I’ve done ok – so it works for me. See how you get on*:
Act: Take action. Building your mental health is just not about waiting for help…yes, of course, help is welcomed and needs to be both funded and recognised as an essential service – but a pincer movement of outside intervention and inner strength could get you to mental wellness that bit faster. One of the most effective things I did while my dad was hospitalised (and caught covid while there!), and now as I’m struggling to watch my dog adapt to blindness is ask what can I best do to HELP in this situation? With my dad it was to act as a messenger between his medical team and his friends in Malaysia and encourage them to call him; with Brandy, my pup, – well, she’s got a garden ramp and textured pathways round the house!
Try this: Although you may feel overwhelmed, ask yourself what can I best do to HELP? And the answer may even be – go and have a cry – and that’s OK.
Deal: Deal with little things before they become bigger ones. Procrastinating solves nothing, and before you say “I’ll do it tomorrow”…ask yourself “what makes you think tomorrow will be different to today?” If you make it different eg. By setting a plan in place to do the task, great – if not…then, really, this moment, the present – is that moment we have got guaranteed.
Try this: Get that “thing” you’ve been meaning to do done!
Optimise: Every experience, even the negative ones, can be learned from.
Try this: Rather than focusing on what you don’t like…engage your curiosity eg: what don’t I like? This simply means that if you come to do that very thing – you can do it in the way you do like!!
Prepare: You can’t cover all bases, but you can set yourself up for success the best you can.
Try this: Before you take action, ask yourself – have I done all I possibly can to get the response/outcome I want or am aiming for? (This will remind you of the power of knowing what you are aiming for too!)
Thrive: Remember, mental HEALTH is not just the absence of mental illness or mental suffering – but the presence of mental wellness. It’s not simply about getting “back to normal” but rather looking, reaching, stepping beyond it.
Try this: Become aware of your mental HEALTH. Become aware of what makes you feel great. Become aware of how awesome you can be…and start ADOPTING the behaviours that get you there…and further…today!
*note: this is a COMPLIMENTARY technique – it is NOT a substitute nor an alternative for professional intervention.
This year, COULD mental HEALTH awareness week be AS MUCH ABOUT learning to be mentally healthy as mindful that mental illness suffers invisibly - and celebrate the wellbeing activities as much as raising awareness of the invisible diseases? Could we reclaim mental HEALTH as inner strength, emotional fortitude and personal power so that we are PROUD to seek it, to display it, and to commit to working towards it? Could we change the mental HEALTH narrative so it's not just about removal of suffering, but reaching out towards thriving?
I'm reclaiming my mental health! Who's with me?
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.