It’s hard to wade through the headlines and find the truth of a situation, particularly one as complex and sensitive as mental health.
I am interested in mental health for various reasons; at times in my life I have experienced anxiety and feelings akin to panic attacks. Furthermore I have an eleven month old baby daughter with a very complex medical condition. The feeling of helplessness and despair have been, at times, extraordinarily stressful. Meanwhile at work, whether as a lecturer or an HR consultant, I’m particularly conscious of mental health as an increasingly common issue.
As a lecturer my focus is for the most part on young adults aged 18-22. We frequently encounter students suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues. I’m skeptical about what I sometimes see as the lazy/general claims made about the younger generation, but I have concluded that I do see a generation more afflicted by mental health issues. I wonder what causes this; is it the way they were raised? Is it the all-consuming influence of technology and social media? Is it that people are increasingly separated from nature and healthy living? Or is it that they are simply more aware of mental health issues and this results in both greater transparency? I suspect it’s a combination of all of the above.
The situation in industry is not so different. I hear a similar story from clients in different industries; reports of employees suffering from mental health problems. People on medication or signed off from work. They seem to feel under more pressure and many are struggling under this pressure. In industry the terminology used to describe the issue is a little different from education - it’s probably more stress than anxiety.
Greater awareness of mental health issues is a good thing. But there is still a stigma because people don’t want to be labeled or singled out. There is still a perception that a problem is a negative, that to suffer means you are somehow fragile or weak. Such attitudes are of course completely wrong. Not just because asking for help is never wrong…but also I’d argue we all have mental health problems. Yep everyone of us. Is this a controversial thing to say? Some might argue I’m demeaning those with problems whilst others will say “they are perfectly ok thank you very much and don’t need to be described as suffering from mental health issues”!
My answer is I think mental health can rarely be looked at in an arbitrary way. Life is tough and modern life is in many ways completely unnatural. I don’t think you either have depression or not. I don’t think you either have anxiety or none at all. We all suffer from stress, we all have anxiety at least from time to time and at times in our lives we feel depressed. I really don’t believe anyone cruises through this life untouched. Whilst an arbitrary label can help some to seek the support and get them the help they need, for others it can become a crutch and an excuse…yes I know to some ears this could be the second controversial thing I’ve said but in my observation it’s something I believe to be true, whether we are referring to students or people in the workforce.
I think the key differentiator in someone’s health is often not what is wrong with them, but how they deal with it. To that end I think it’s about giving people the tools to cope with mental health issues. Part of this is definitely encouraging people to talk about their issues but it’s also about giving them techniques to help deal with their problems. In the workplace it has to be about employers, not to mention managers, being more aware of mental health issues. In universities and colleges we have to bravely and unashamedly help build our students resilience – for which there are no short cuts - and help to teach them coping strategies. Life is hard but it is good too and ensuring we have the tools to help manage our wellbeing can make it that bit better.