This week, 10th – 16th May, is Mental Health Awareness Week; a time when people recognise the challenges that many face and improvements still needed in this area. Broadly speaking, there are two different approaches to mental health solutions – the unequal focus on one method can be problematic for genuine change and progress.
In his book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman comments on the first and most common approach. The entire field of psychology and psychiatry began with a focus on fixing problems. Researchers and therapists would focus on sufferings, mental illness, depression, anxiety, pathologies and all kinds of other problems. Through research and diagnosis they would then develop ways of alleviating symptoms through medications, therapy, and clinical protocols.
This is a highly important and valuable industry but Seligman did note a key drawback: even when patients had gone through such therapies and their negative symptoms had gone… they could be left feeling empty at the end. Just because a problem had been fixed and negative mental health was alleviated, did not automatically lead to positive mental health.
Seligman realised that ‘fixing symptoms’ was not enough and so he became an advocate and leader for what is now known as ‘positive psychology’. This area of research focuses on what it takes to help ordinary people, whether they’ve suffered a mental health challenge or not, to boost their well being and happiness.
Some of the key components of positive mental health are:
This approach to mental health care is centred on teaching everyone – whether they have mental health challenges or not – the components of positive mental health and how to practically implement them. This allows some people to alleviate their existing symptoms but also allows others to build their resilience and resistance to mental health issues in the first place.
Every mental health awareness week we see amazing and inspiring stories of personal transformation. Usually along the lines of:
“I was struggling with X alone until I couldn’t cope. Things got so bad that I used Y service or tried Z strategy and now I’m much better.”
There are a great number of charities and public services that help people in crisis to bounce back, deal with an issue and come out of the other side stronger. These are fantastic organisations who specialise in crisis response, suicide prevention, stress management, and the alleviation of symptoms…
but learning to fix the problem is not the same as learning to prevent the problem entirely.
And this approach does accidentally perpetuate the unhelpful narrative that ‘You ask for help once you are having a problem.’ For some people this is too late, or means even more work has to be done because the problem has gotten so big.
This why Mental Health Awareness Week needs to also be promoting those organisations, programmes and research findings that help people to fortify and grow their positive mental health – to prevent those fires flaring up in the first place.
In a recent conversation, a client said:
“I’m fed up of being a daisy. Daisies have animals do all sorts of business on them, they get trodden on and they get mowed down a few times each year… but still they bounce back up ready to be chopped down again. I’m tired of being chopped down. I want to feel more like a brick wall – with a solid foundation and without needing to bounce back.”
This analogy perfectly captures the difference between the two mental health approaches:
It also recognises that although building a wall takes effort – in the long run it’s much less exhausting than bouncing back every time there’s a crisis.
If you are looking to become the wall – or rather, flourish in your mental health – then luckily there are a number of great strategies that you can implement. And some more good news is that positive mental health is a series of small habits rather than a big lifestyle change.
If you or your team are looking for support in boosting your positive mental health, then check out the Tools For Happier Living Programme – an 8 week group training programme focused on positive psychology, healthy habits and positive mental health.
Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.