There is considerable interest by individuals and corporations in minimising the currently high levels of mental illness in the western world. Mental illness statistics have been growing consistently over the past years to reach epidemic levels with one in five people experiencing some form of mental illness at any given time. The costs to individuals, businesses, the health budget and communities is significant and not sustainable. Depression related disability in Australia is expected to cost the Australian economy 14.9 billion dollars each year, with treatment costs estimated at $600 million annually.
For more than fifteen years now, we have been spending money on increasing awareness of what are called the ‘high prevalence’ mental disorders – depression and anxiety – and organisations such as beyondblue, black dog institute and SANE Australia have all made a significant and valuable contribution to public education.
But in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, rates of mental illness continue to soar affecting younger and younger populations, whilst the amount of time feeling unwell has increased and a number of people attending for conventional treatment fail to respond.
For many of us working at the coalface – doctors, psychologists, social workers, health workers, psychiatrists – the burden of ever-increasing numbers of depressed and anxious patients on the doorsteps of our clinics has had a toll on our own health and wellbeing. It simply isn’t sustainable to expect twenty per cent of the population to receive timely and effective treatment on a needs basis from the existing health workforce. I have known many health professionals to suffer stress, anxiety and burnout as a consequence of trying to fit in the constant stream of mentally unwell patients, particularly in rural areas where services are fewer and sufferers are in greater numbers.
In addition, the causes of depression and the reasons for the recent increases in prevalence rates remain unknown, though several theories have been espoused, including the “chemical imbalance” theory.
As a result of this and my own burnout in a rural psychology practice, I began researching the “why?”. Why are rates of depression and anxiety continuing to escalate? Why are sufferers remaining unwell for longer and failing to respond to orthodox treatments? Why are there increasing numbers of younger people experiencing debilitating mental illness than at other times in our history?
Over several years I committed time to researching these questions and have reported my findings and strategies for positive change in my book: Change Your Thinking, Change Your World, which was published by Ibis Press in November, 2014.
What I found was that there had been a number of significant social and environmental changes during the period in which mental illness rates have grown, including:
· Family and relationship breakdown
· Changing gender roles and Increasing participation by women in the workforce
· Increased exposure through technology to information including world tragedies
· Increased environmental toxicity and soil depletion
· Increased chemicalisation and processing of our foods
· Increased levels of chronic illnesses
· Reduced participation in religious activity
· Increasing individualism and consumerism
· Loss of values-based civil and corporate leadersh
This research validated what I had been hearing for many years in my clinic: people were unhappy, lost, their relationships were often unhealthy, as was their physical health and their relationship with food; they described feeling “disconnected”, “not belonging”, feeling that their lives lacked meaning and purpose. Having ‘things’ didn’t mitigate their distress or unhappiness.
Psychology as a profession had existed up until the turn of the century to diagnose and treat mental illness and it did a reasonable job of this – eradicating or minimising the disabling symptoms of several psychiatric illnesses. But at the turn of the new millennia, psychology began to focus its attention on the factors that enable us to live our lives well – and so the the new field of Positive Psychology, lead by Dr Martin Seligman was born. This refocussing of psychology has had far-reaching consequences, both for the profession of psychology and its practitioners and for our clients.
Firstly, Seligman and other positive psychology researchers have consistently confirmed that money and “things” don’t buy sustainable happiness. Positive loving relationships, sufficient money to meet our basic needs, engaging activities or work, values and some form of spiritual connection are far more predictive of a happy and meaningful life.
In beginning their investigation into the factors that contribute to living life well, rather than cataloguing symptoms of illness as traditional psychology had done, Seligman and his team developed a catalogue of Core Virtues that they found to be ubiquitous – common across time, cultures, religious and philosophical traditions. The Six Core Virtues, which taken together encapsulate the notion of “good character,” are:
1. Wisdom and Knowledge
3. Love and Humanity
6. Spirituality and Transcendence
Each of the six Core Virtues were then expanded to form twenty-four character strengths, some of which will resonate more with us than others. Seligman argues that if we are living our lives in ways which allow for the expression of our Core Virtues and unique Character Strengths, we will be living meaningful and sustainably happy lives.
If you want to find out what your unique Character Strengths are, you can go to Dr Seligman’s website www.authentichappiness.org and click on VIA Signature Strengths Survey.
But perhaps the most important change in this refocussing of psychology is that it forces a shifting of attention and countless hours of discussion of problems, difficulties, sadnesses and traumas – in other words, a shift away from the things that We Don’t Want in Our Lives, towards what We Do Want in Our Lives.
I won’t go into the detail here, but this is a shift of energy, as we now understand from the science of Quantum Physics, and what is known as The Law of Attraction – where like attracts like. Simply put – talk about problems, you will get more problems. Talk about solutions, you will attract more solutions.
Some world leaders have intuitively known this. Mother Teresa, for example, said: “I will never attend an anti-war rally. If you have a peace rally, invite me.”
And so, after fifteen years of talking about awareness of mental illness, I believe the time has come to talk about raising awareness of the factors that contribute to positive and sustainable mental health and wellbeing. It is a constant source of frustration to me each year during Mental Health Week that so much focus is actually given to mental illness, not mental health. So much so, that the term Mental Health has become virtually interchangeable with the term Mental Illness. Often the literature will refer to “Mental Health Issues” which really means “Mental Illness Issues”. Rather than information about depression, anxiety, grief, suicide, we need to hear stories and receive information about positive relationships, healthy foods and the relationship between the gut and the brain (there’s another story), about values in action, about connection to community and something bigger than our day-to-day experiences.