Prince William has recently led a campaign on mental health in conjunction with Public Health England, The FA, and Heads Together. A minute’s silence was held at the start of all third round FA cup matches to encourage fans to think about their mental health. They were also encouraged to visit the Every Mind Matters website to answer five questions about their mental health and receive their mind plan and get top tips and advice on how to stay mentally healthy.
The five questions asked about mood, sleep, feeling anxious or on edge, feeling stressed and whether respondents had been worrying about any of a list of issues (personal life and relationships, money, life changes, traumatic events etc.).
The focus in the list is on feelings. This is the focus of the medical approach to mental health. Feelings are seen as symptoms; symptoms of possible underlying illnesses. Another implication of the way the five questions are constructed is that these feelings are necessarily bad and could require help or treatment.
We have become so used to this focus on feelings that at first sight it may seem unexceptionable. However, while it is psychological to the extent that it aims to highlight a person’s felt psychological experience, this is a very weak version of a psychological approach. It essentially is based on a model of experience that sees the individual as pushed and pulled by the events and circumstances of their life. An alternative psychological model can be illustrated by the following quotes;
“Experience is the child of thought.” Disraeli
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” Shakespeare
“Men are not disturbed by things, but by the opinions they make of them” Epictetus
These quotes remind us that every mind belongs to a thinking agent and behind our feelings lies what we are thinking. In its purest form this would be regarded as a very strong psychological model, one that is possibly too strong for the current climate of opinion.
A not-so-strong psychological model would accept that we are thinking agents and that our thoughts are the source of our feelings. However, it would also recognise that we are social creatures who invent very little for ourselves but are creatures of habit, and our time and culture.
With these thoughts in mind, how could people be encouraged to think about their mental health by focusing, not on their feelings, but on their thinking and to do so recognising that many positive aspects of our thinking are essential to feeling good.
Could people be asked some of the following;
In the last two weeks how often;
Have you appreciated the relationships you have?
Have you looked forward to the day?
Have you let yourself dream?
Have you been enthusiastic?
Have you thought you are OK as a person?
Have you spent time preparing yourself for the challenges you might face?
Have you appreciated the moment?
Have you noticed something new?
Have you found something interesting?
Have you celebrated something?
Have you made plans for something in the future?
Have you had a sense of wonder about the World?
(NB The psychological value of being able to answer these questions in a positive way depends on the quality and conviction with which we have had the thoughts. With each of them we could undermine the positive value by playing the yes-but game.)
Asking some of these questions focuses us on our thoughts as something we are doing. We become active agents with hopes, concerns and plans for our future. This is quite a different perspective from seeing our feelings as signs or symptoms of our mental health.
But the mental health lobby is strong and becoming stronger.
Last October Every Mind Matters was launched claiming it was a groundbreaking new platform to support mental health. It stated that “A new PHE survey reveals more than 8 in ten (83%) people “have experienced early signs of poor mental health including feeling anxious, stressed, having low mood or trouble sleeping in the last 12 months.”
It added that “while these can be a natural response to life’s challenges, they can become more serious if people don’t take action, and many wait too long.”
A special film was made to promote Every Mind Matters. It featured a range of well-known people whose lives have been affected by poor mental health.
So, should we regard feeling anxious, stressed, poor sleep, etc as early signs of poor mental health? Should we worry that these feelings could become more serious? Should we be alarmed that our life could be affected by poor mental health like even some celebrities?
If we did what are the likely consequences?
- We would be more likely to focus on our feelings and be concerned there was something wrong with us.
- We would be more likely to feel the solutions are some techniques or treatments to ‘cope with’ or ‘manage’ our feelings.
- It would be harder for us to accept the inevitable but positive aspects of struggling with making sense of life.
- It would be harder for us to see worry and feeling low as ordinary parts of trying to make sense of our place in the world.
- It would be harder for us to see the central role our thinking plays in determining the nature and quality of our experiences.
- It would be harder for us to take responsibility for ourselves.
- It would be harder to see ourselves as active agents plotting our way through life’s joys and tribulations.
The mental health lobby has become much stronger in recent years; this is evidenced, among other things, by the growing number of so-called conditions it is claimed we can ‘suffer from’. Public Health England have taken this another step further. They ‘reveal’ that 83% of respondents to their survey “have experienced early signs of poor mental health including feeling anxious, stressed, having low mood or trouble sleeping in the last 12 months. It is probably shouldn’t be shocking that 83% experience one or more of these ordinary feelings over a period of a year; but, perhaps, we should be shocked that Public Health England are labelling them as “early signs of poor mental health”.
Are we less psychologically healthy than we were or is it that the narrative that describes these feelings as symptoms is gaining further ground? Is this just another step in the medicalisation of ordinary experience? If so, why is it happening? Where is it leading us? Who really benefits? Is it really going to help the person on the Clapham omnibus? Or will more and more people come to believe they have a mental health problem that they probably have for life and the best they can do is seek help and learn to live with it?