Mental Health Awareness Week 2017: our big message

24 February 2017

There was a look of concern written across my friend’s face. My marriage had dissolved some months earlier and I had just moved into a new flat. I hadn’t managed to buy furniture save for a single mattress on the floor and an empty red wine bottle standing idly beside it. We ate the lasagne I’d cooked with a spatula because I hadn’t managed to get cutlery yet.

My friend could sense the scene matched my state - a pathetic fallacy reflecting my broken world. I thought back then that my life would be diminished from that point on, that it was permanently damaged. But the truth has been something different.

I under-estimated the resources and support network that I had around me. That support turned an irredeemable failure into an experience that was ultimately empowering for me. Moving into that flat was the departure point, a fork in the road that opened life up, rather than closing it down.

Surviving and Thriving

My view of surviving or thriving is not that these are two ends of a mental health spectrum. It’s not like a tug of war with prizes for those who are strong enough to pull through to thrive. Rather, it might be more accurate to see thriving and surviving as opposite points on a circle that feed into each other if we let them. An experience that requires surviving can pave the way for further understanding and that growth can strengthen our resilience for the struggles that are to come.

Whether we are thriving or surviving or stuck somewhere in that cycle is not just down to us. Each of us has different backgrounds, resources, experiences and opportunities which affect our risk of mental ill-health and ability to thrive. That is why I am excited by city and region-led initiatives like Thrive West Midlands to identify the role of local government, schools and employers in supporting better mental health.

However, if we are going to develop a mentally healthy society, giving people the tools to thrive mentally is also fundamental. It is so important because none of us can escape life’s pain or disappointment. Resilience is a universal skill we all need to help each other learn to successfully navigate life.

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The good news is that resilience is not genetically inherited. It can be learned and strengthened (and shared). Our vulnerabilities and struggles don’t disqualify us; they can form the bedrock for good mental health. I have the privilege of working with colleagues whose very experience of mental ill-health has created a well of wisdom that has led them to better mental health. This is the heart of the self-management approach to mental health that we have often championed.

Eminent psychologist Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania has noted this pattern in the experience of servicemen in the American Armed forces. Post-traumatic growth is a term used to describe the experiences of many soldiers who have found a greater level of solace and meaning in life following a period of loss and trauma. Of course, we also know that trauma can lead to another cycle - to long periods of mental ill-health and even suicide. Given we will all face difficult times, we are left with an urgent question: how we can increase our collective experience of post-traumatic growth?

Our starting point is that we need to design modern life with good mental health in mind. It was John Maynard Keynes who predicted that advances in technology would led us to vastly expanded leisure time and a 15-hour work week. Instead, our technology has meant a seeping of work into every corner of our lives. It’s one example of where we’ve failed to make good mental health easier to achieve and people are living the consequences. As outlined in our Fundamental Facts about Mental Health, in 2014 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and older showed symptoms of anxiety or depression – a 1.5% increase from 2013.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2017

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we are flipping the focus away from mental ill-health to exploring how we can cultivate good mental health. It is an opportunity to reflect on the strategies and resources we need to both shape a coherent national approach to public mental health and the tools we need our families and our communities to radically re-frame our ability to thrive in life.   

During the week of 8-14 May, we will be producing a new report to highlight the numbers of us who feel stuck on 'survive'. We will be providing advice and insight into how we can build good mental health in the context of our work, our digital world, our parenting approach and in our communities. We will be calling on the Government to do more to promote better mental health.

Human beings are probably the most resilient creatures on the planet. Through countless setbacks, we have learnt how to survive but we are only now starting to understand how to thrive.

Help us spread the word

We want to reach as many people as possible via social media. In just a few clicks, you can help us do this by signing up to our Thunderclap. To do so, follow the link below.

Join the Thunderclap