Changing Minds

Feed your head

Today is World Mental Health Day 2014, a day when people all around the world work to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and preventing mental illness.

For those of us working to popularise mental health though, the focus of World Mental Health Day can be frustratingly negative, dominated by discussions of mental illness and defined more by the differences between us than the things that unite us. We need to talk about the problems, but we have to make the topic relevant for people first.

World Mental Health Day should be a chance to celebrate our minds and discuss what we need as a society. We should be debating the structural issues affecting everyone’s minds – from the stress levels in our workplaces to the facilities in our communities – and asking how our institutions and our society need to change to improve mental health for everyone.

Good mental health is a universal topic, and one of our most basic human needs. Mental health issues cost the UK £105bn per year according to recent Government figures, and affect people from all backgrounds. James Morris MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health, once told me he believes mental health to be the single biggest policy challenge of the next thirty years. And yet we still have no official public mental health campaign in the UK.

The case for taking care of our minds is obvious though. So how can we tap into our natural desire to be healthy and successful, and use it to put mental health at the heart of our public consciousness?

STATE OF MIND

In 2013, Mindapples and the mental health charity, Mind, conducted a survey of national attitudes and behaviours around our minds. The results showed some surprising trends in public attitudes.

We certainly know our minds are important. 84 per cent of people we surveyed believed their mental health to be as important as their physical health. Yet we seem to do surprisingly little to look after ourselves. Despite saying their mental health is important, 52 per cent of our respondents said they had never thought about it before. We know our minds matter, but turning that into positive actions seems to be more of a struggle.

One problem is that the term ‘mental health’ has become so associated with illness. Many years of campaigning in this have shown us just how entrenched these associations have become. Whilst physical health is something to be proud of having, mental health is often seen as something to be avoided, only relevant for sick people rather than a universal goal. So we have no positive image to move towards, and we struggle to take action. Perhaps this is why 72 per cent of our respondents felt mental health and wellbeing issues were not discussed openly enough in society.

Another problem is that we know so little about our minds. We are bombarded with information about plaque on our teeth, germs on our hands and salt in our food, yet we are taught almost nothing about our minds. We don’t learn the concepts, and we don’t know what’s normal. The result is that our minds can feel shadowy and mysterious, something over which we have little control. So we tune out the messages, ignore our minds and focus on easier things like watching our waistlines or cutting down on sugar, and hope the experts will fix us if something goes wrong.

There is a growing public interest in the mind though, from neuroscience stories in the media to the growth of popular psychology. In fact, 72 per cent of our survey respondents said they would like to know more about looking after their mental health and wellbeing. When it comes to engaging people in thinking more about the health of their minds, we are pushing at an open door.

WE ALL HAVE MENTAL HEALTH

What we do really does make a difference. When it comes to mental health, we have a huge untapped opportunity to improve the health of our nation.

Basic physiological factors like sleep and hydration can have a big impact, whilst making time for “breathers” and “restorers” in our daily lives can help us maintain our mental wellbeing and prevent problems before they occur. Some Department of Health studies suggest that as much as 50 per cent of mental health issues are preventable. The message is clear: we need to take better care of ourselves.

Too often, though, these issues have got lost in discussions of softer subjects like happiness and wellbeing, making people reluctant to invest and taking the attention away from the basic ingredients of good mental health. We talk about reducing stigma, promoting wellbeing, increasing happiness – and mental health continues to miss out.

Mental health is far too important to be dismissed as a fad or a luxury. It is every bit as essential as watching our diet and washing our hands, and it needs to be treated in those terms. We need to encourage people to look after their minds, minimise the factors that can make people ill, get people help early, and help people recover quickly. As the Chief Medical Officer put it in her recent report, “This is ‘low-hanging fruit’; we must not ignore it, or focus instead on ‘well-being’”.

It’s time for a change. We all have mental health, and looking after our minds is a normal part of having a successful life. So, this World Mental Health Day, let’s work towards a general public understanding of what our minds need to thrive, and ask how we can improve our society to fit the needs of our minds, rather than the other way around.

TAKE ACTION

Here are three things you can do today to promote mental health:

  1. Talk about your mind. That doesn’t just mean talking about problems with your mind: talk about how you are feeling, how the world is affecting you mentally, and what your mind needs to thrive. The more we talk to each other, the more normal it becomes and the more we start to learn about ourselves and each other. Mindapples even has a free iPhone app, Moodbug, to make it easy to share your moods with people you trust. moodbug.me
  2. Learn about your mind. The more we know about something, the more we can do about it and the less daunting it feels. So take time to learn about your mind, from books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Daniel & Jason Freeman’s Use Your Head, and websites like Mindhacks and Farnham Street. Here’s one of our introductory talks on the subject to get you started: http://mindap.pl/mindcognac
  3. Practise your mindapples. Sleep, water, nutrition, exercise and day-to-day general breathers and restorers can help keep your mind fresh and health through the day, so make time for your mind and help others do the same. You can share the 5-a-day for your mind and see what other people do here at mindapples.org

[An edited version of this post has also been published on Huffington Post.]