By Gill Jardine, Counsellor/Psychotherapist
We are living in a time of increasing awareness of mental health issues which sounds all to the good, but, in reality, is it? I can hear you thinking: ‘Well, of course it is, why would it not be, what is she talking about? What does she mean by questioning it?” Well, what I’m talking about is a significant downside I have noticed as a result of the increased focus on mental health. Here, let me explain…
For so many years, mental health difficulties were largely ignored. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of the two world wars. At that time there was practically no understanding of mental trauma and its effects on those who experienced it, their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. People realised that great grandad or grandad had been in the war and probably experienced living in the trenches, seeing friends and colleagues injured and killed and the myriad of other horrors war presents. Many men came back scarred and badly injured. Many had lost limbs, lost their sight, or suffered severe burns. These sort of effects were very visible. My own grandfather lost a leg and I still vividly remember the ‘clank’ of the caliper on his other leg as he walked.
What we couldn’t see were the mental scars and injuries. Indeed some men didn’t return because they has been shot as cowards because of behaviours like running away! In actual fact, it is highly likely they had been suffering from what is now recognised as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) – a concept fairly recently identified. Now, thank goodness, we are aware of this and there are ever improving treatments available including medications and psychotherapy.
So, where does this fit with the thought that perhaps our rather sudden, somewhat extreme focus on mental health may have drawbacks? It seems to me that because people are now more aware of mental health conditions, they are more inclined to jump to a conclusion that they are suffering from one of the conditions that have a broad public profile, e.g. depression, generalised anxiety disorder, PTSD – creating a risk of misdiagnosis and causing worry. As discussed in previous articles (reference here), it is essential that we take responsibility for both our physical and mental health as far as we can but always starting from a neutral, layman’s place. As the profile of mental health has grown, so has the number of people looking for a formal diagnosis to explain their symptoms. In fact , in my practice, I find people are disappointed if they are not diagnosed. I would point out here that, as a counsellor, I am not qualified to diagnose but they come to me anxious because their GP has neither diagnosed nor prescribed.
Perhaps the next thing to consider is what is meant by a ‘neutral, layman’s’ place. Well, only a few of us are trained and qualified in health matters – even less in mental health. This of course means that most of us don’t have the knowledge or the skills to ‘treat’ ourselves when we have a health problem – we need to seek the help of a professional. The question here is at what point do we seek that help? If we start to cough or perhaps sneeze, we might first think that this a just a cold and it will likely run its course in perhaps a couple of days, so we take some over the counter medicine or maybe hot water with honey and lemon and we feel better and therefore have no need of a professional. If, however, we do not feel better, we find we have a temperature and other symptoms such as aches and pains, perhaps a very sore throat, we then need to consult a doctor who will likely prescribe more medication. This, of course, is an example of a fairly simple, usually non-threatening condition with which we are all familiar but do we actually do anything to prevent us catching it in the first place? Just think for a minute……what comes to mind? We know that at least some of the organisms that cause colds are airborne. It is almost a joke when you meet up with somebody who has a cold when you say, I’m not coming too near you! Actually this is one way we are looking after ourselves. When a friend or relative tells you over the phone that they are not feeling great, you consider not visiting in order to preserve your own good health. You may also look at the weather forecast and if it looks like a good idea we might wrap up warm, carry an umbrella or avoid severe cold spells. All of these little things we do to take care of ourselves and therefore prevent illness in the first place.
Now, what about mental health? Is the same true or is it so difficult that the ordinary person can’t do anything to prevent an episode of mental illness? It is true that there is more mystery around mental health, perhaps because it is not so obvious and it’s harder to see. If someone is crying, it may well be that they are sad because something sad has happened in their life. If someone is anxious, maybe they have mislaid their purse or wallet or missed their usual bus – neither of these mean they are suffering from mental illness, these are usually normal reactions to normal every day life. In fact the first thing we need to learn about mental health is that we are talking about health, not illness. And we all have mental health, as we have physical health, which needs monitoring and daily attention.
We can consider our mental condition every day by asking ourselves how we are feeling? Are we enjoying what we are doing? Are we comfortable with those around us? Do we feel safe? Are we eating and sleeping properly? If any of these things are out of kilter, we will likely not feel mentally at ease. So, how can we make changes in the every day to make things feel better and give ourselves the best chance of feeling healthy mentally? This is a big question, but if we are aware of how we are feeling, we are in a better position to look for small things we can do to help ourselves feel better and more in control.
I started here by talking about possible downsides of the mental health boom. Of course, we need professional support to help us with both physical and mental issues sometimes and, of course, sometimes a diagnosis is necessary followed by prescribed treatment but, I wonder how much we could achieve for ourselves by being proactive in our own health first? Do not get me wrong here. The last thing I would wish to do is minimise anyone’s mental illness. But I just wonder if we might be the holders of more power over our lives than we give we ourselves credit for? And that if we harness this power, whether the effect on our mental health could be considerable? Perhaps if people were more aware of the severity of diagnosed conditions and how they impact the sufferers lives, they would seek to have one for themselves rather less and stop self-diagnosing. There is nothing glamorous about mental illness and these illnesses, in my opinion, should be considered as separate from mental health – as I said earlier, we all have mental health, and this needs attending by everyone, to help prevent illness. Instead of gathering up diagnoses I believe we should all be doing our best to prevent these illnesses where possible.
I want to suggest we start today. Find one of those little changes I mentioned earlier – perhaps one more regular walk in nature and a few more hours sleep and just see if these little healthy changes have an impact on your wellbeing – you may be surprised by just how much better you feel.
Good luck and take care.