Last Monday, I attended a panel discussion organised by Bristol is Global on “What more can we do about student mental well-being?”. This great evening with experts in student mental health left me with a specific question: Is there an issue with the word ‘mental health’?
Let’s see why…
OUR WORDS CARRY MEANING
As human beings, we are aware of the world around us and we use thinking to turn information into knowledge. We do this at every moment of our day by filtering the information we receive from the external world. As a result, we create mental models. Our mental models are built over the years by giving meaning to this filtered information, through memories, and experiences. Our experiences and our mental models are unique to us. They are also very powerful because they determine how we will feel, respond, and act. They influence our point of view and opinion on different topics.
Yet, we tend to think that everybody thinks, feels, and experiences the world as we do.
I became aware of this when I first met my husband. His notion of ‘hot weather’ is so different from mine. I grew up in France (in the Centre East) and temperatures can soar in the summer. It is common to get 40oC in July or August. Now, for me THIS is ‘hot’. But for my husband, hot may be a nice summer day when temperatures in the UK reach 25oC. What is your notion of ‘hot’? It might even conjure up ideas which are not linked to the weather at all!?
This applies to everything in our lives and so the word ‘mental health’ is not exempt. We all use the word ‘mental health’ and assume that we all mean the same thing but we clearly don’t.
SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
When I give presentation or run workshops, I often ask attendies how they would define mental health. The silence that follows this question often surprises me.
But if we reflect on the above point, then we can see that when we think about, refer to or discuss mental health, we will have mental models based on our past experiences and memories.
Take a couple of seconds to reflect on your mental models and how do they impact your views on mental health?
Mine were definitely shaped by my mother’s struggles with depression throughout my childhood. If you’ve never been in contact with people who suffer from a mental illness, you might have built different mental models and opinions which differ greatly from mine. This is not right nor wrong – it just is. That’s how we create a reality – ALL OF US, WITHOUT FAIL!
We just need to become fully aware of these differences and not pretend that we are talking about the same thing.
MENTAL HEALTH – WHY SO MUCH NEGATIVITY?
I have recently started an online survey to see how the general public in the UK automatically thinks about physical health and mental health. I asked them to give me 3 words they would use to refer to mental health and 3 for physical health.
So far, I have had about 45 responses and it has confirmed what I already had noticed during my research last year. The vast majority of people who responded (around 85% of the responses) gave me negative words for mental health (e.g depression, anxiety, burnout, stress, mania) but more positive words for physical health (e.g fitness, health, wellness, gym, strong).
As this is a very small sample, it is difficult to draw definite conclusions but it certainly highlights the fact that mental health is often automatically linked to negative words in the English language, which I believe will generate negative mental models and will have an impact on our view points on this topic.
TIME TO DITCH MENTAL HEALTH?
There’s a campaign called ‘time to change’ which invites us to end mental health discrimination. I could not agree more with their aims and objectives.
However, I think that change cannot happen until we ALL become consciously aware of our mental models around mental health and that we ALL agree to use the same definition for mental health.
I have already discussed this in a previous post but mental health is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being’
Mental Health was defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a ‘state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’ (WHO, 2014).
I suggest we settle on the second definition, as it feels much more positive and empowering.
From there, it will be much easier for us to start new conversations and to look at how we improve our mental health and what we can do on a daily basis to achieve this.
And if we really can’t accept this more ‘neutral’ or ‘positive’ definition of mental health as the basis for future discussions then perhaps it is time to simply ditch the use of ‘mental health’ and to start using ‘mental well-being’ instead just like BIG did for their event last Monday.
So, what do you think? Are you game?
Remember to be the change you want to be in the world – change starts with us as individuals.