Mental Health, are We Missing a Trick?

woman distressed in the street feeling overwhelmed
by Barry Winbolt

There is a set of ideas which, over the years, have driven by therapy and coaching work, and my writing. One of them is that we should be reclaiming our mental wellbeing. I’ll do my best to be brief.

We seem to have forgotten that for most of our history the human race has had to sort its problems out without the current systems and mental health apparatus. The history of the mental health business is a fascinating one (see Ellenberger, below, if you want to know more), and it has made great strides in understanding and treating mental illness, but not all psychological distress is ‘mental illness’.

There is a whole range of things that disturb people and interfere with their quality of life, productivity, wellbeing, happiness, or whatever. Sometimes these are caused by challenging or tragic life events, sometimes they are of a more existential or spiritual nature. We are temporarily knocked back in some way. Perhaps we become depressed or anxious, perhaps it is something less tangible like a pervasive sense of worry or the feeling that something is missing. These are just examples, there are many aspects to this.

Because of the way our thinking has been shaped about anything we see as having mental or psychological origins, when distress occurs we seem unwilling or even afraid to accept and work through it. We either suffer in silence or, if we seek help we scuttle off to the doctor (who typically knows less about us than we do), in the hope of a remedy.

Medical Models

Since its inception around a century ago, the psychology industry has played the role of breathless handmaiden to the medical profession. Matters of the mind have been medicalised and psychologists (to include therapists like counsellors and psychotherapists), have increasingly emulated the medical model and sought its recognition, in some places even seeking permission to issue prescriptions for medication.

person discussing possibilities

Understanding how we behave and how we function psychologically has therefore been seen as the domain of specialists. This has led to a burgeoning mental health industry with associated sub-specialisations, both in the classification of emotional and psychological distress, and in its treatment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as DSM-IV), a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association lists over 300 “currently recognised mental health disorders”. As for treatment, it is widely reported that there are over 400 approaches to psychological therapy (200 in the UK). All these figures seem set to grow.

Meanwhile, in keeping with this, the rest of us have come to believe that, if we are troubled, we must seek a medical or quasi-medical route out of our problems. This reaches tragic proportions when normal reactions to the business of living are classified—and therefore treated—as illnesses (see DSM-IV).

Organisations like MIND in the UK and others elsewhere work valiantly to tackle society’s stigma and unhelpful attitudes towards mental illness, but they won’t do it alone. We must remember that we are society, so it is our attitudes and beliefs they are talking about (of course, not yours or mine, we are OK, aren’t we?).

Back to the Idea

One of the ideas driving this blog is that the over-psyhcologising of life leads to a state of helplessness with regard to out own psychological and emotional wellbeing. There is no doubt that mental illness exists and that in such cases the mental health professions do a brilliant job (though they are increasingly stretched and can’t cope for much longer). But ‘mental health’ covers a wide spectrum, and while at one extreme medical treatment may be necessary, from the other end of the spectrum, and for a large part of it, there is much we can do for ourselves.

Working from home

The idea is therefore that we reclaim our psychological and spiritual wellbeing. To do this we normalise much of what has been seen as ‘mental health issues’, accepting that unhappiness and its derivatives are part of life, and relearn the tolerance and skills that will help us through them.

A broken leg requires particular treatments (fix the leg, manage the pain), it is not right that we treat a broken spirit in the same way.

To learn more about mental health see: Mindfulness in Life and at Work

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