Society’s role in promoting good mental health

Society’s role in promoting good mental health

Within the past two weeks, we started broaching the subject of mental health, by talking about how mental illness has been viewed over the years, it’s prevalence worldwide and about one specific thing that, although many times spoken of innocuously, could be an indicator of mental illness- compulsive buying.

Today, as it is the last day of the special month dedicated to discussions of this sort (I personally think the discussions need to be year-round, of-course!), I’d like to focus on the role all of us can and should play in helping to combat the huge problem that is poor mental health.

Impact on Society

First off, let’s consider what some of the tangible effects of mental ill-health are, which may be categorised broadly into: economic and social. In truth, the financial burden of dealing with mental health issues lies solidly on the shoulders of each one of us. How so? Well, in the broadest sense, perhaps, is the tremendous costs implicated in the state-funding of mental hospitals and institutions, to which our taxes contribute. In a similar vein, in countries with structured benefits systems, all tax-payers subsidise the programmes that have been established to provide financial support of those whose long-term disabilities/illnesses impair their ability to work. In fact, 23% of new claimants of Disability Living Allowance in the UK suffer from poor mental health. Think too of the detrimental effects of mental illness on productivity and profitability in the workplace. It is said that a person’s ability to work is more impacted on by mental health issues than any other reason. Employees who have mental health struggles are often not able to work at their full capability (they typically have challenges related to memory, concentration, attention-span and fatigue), and are therefore less productive than others. Further, 40% of all sick days reported are due to mental health problems. On a more micro level, carers of people with debilitating mental conditions can face financial troubles and difficulty maintaining their employment, which in turn causes many of them to themselves develop mental issues.

On a social level, some of the most worrisome consequences of poor mental health are the staggering levels of homelessness, substance abuse and broken / dysfunctional families. According to one charity organisation, 45% of homeless people have been diagnosed with a mental health issue (which include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder) and 41% of those included in a study reported that they used drugs or alcohol to help them deal with not being able to receive the support they need. Many more sufferers of mental health problems, although not homeless, might be forced to cope with their issues alone, without support, due in part to family members and friends not being willing or able to accept the person’s mental issues and effectively cope with these.

Main barriers

All things considered, it can be said that all the hindrances to resolving the mental health crisis boils down to one fundamental thing: stigma. From policy makers and governmental officials to the common man on the street, so to speak, stigma in one form or the other influences the perspectives of and the willingness of individuals to address this elephant in the room. Now, there are lots of layers to this seemingly easily-understood word, stigma. For one, it can mean that depending on the behavioural manifestation of the mental health issues (and subsequently how easy it is to hide), the levels of sympathy shown toward individuals will be. For instance, someone with post-traumatic stress disorder may be more likely to be dealt with more compassionately than someone with highly visible schizophrenia. Then too, stigma also determines which mental disorders society deems as things the person should be able to control, and consequently the sufferer is thought to not be putting in enough effort to ‘fix him/herself’; conversely, mental issues which are considered to be less controllable tend to gain more sympathy and support. On a bigger scale, less resources have often  been channeled into means to help those with mental health issues as a result of the ‘powers that be’ not deeming the issues to be of great importance (thankfully, that kind of attitude is now on the decline, as more account is being taken of the mammoth financial and social costs involved).

It is important to note also that a significant barrier to individuals getting treatment lies with the individuals themselves. In what sense? Mental illness sufferers may have a hard time distinguishing what a normal level of mental anguish (which most individuals will experience at some point in their lives) or perhaps a personality trait (such as being anxious) and an actual mental health issue that one should seek advice about. In other words, self-diagnosis by an individual who has a mental condition is no easy task. Further, many might be plagued with what psychologists term ‘self-stigma’ which leads the individual to feel guilty and inadequate about the state of their mental health, which can lead to a devastating effect on their self-esteem and the ability to pursue help. Understandably, some in need of help are highly reluctant to get treatment because of the acute fear of being labelled and being treated as socially inferior. Hence, this is why society plays such a crucial role in de-stigmatising mental illness and in reaching out to help those who may need it.

Where employers, families and individual members of society come in

After reading all (or even some of!) the above, you should be a bit more convinced that the mental health epidemic affects us all in one way or another, and so it’s only logical that we all have a part to play in the solution. Here are some practical ways in which to do so.

Employers

Bearing in mind the hit on their bottom-lines, businesses should be keen on paying closer attention to promoting the mental wellbeing of their employees. Stress in the workplace is a huge contributor to the risk of mental health issues. Therefore, improved working conditions and organisational culture can lead to a healthier workforce. It has been shown that giving employees more autonomy over the decision-making, design and improvement of their work helps in workers feeling more in control, and subsequently, less under stress. Another way to alleviate stress is to cultivate an environment in which employees feel secure in their jobs and not constantly under the threat of losing their job. Improving the social aspects of the workplace goes a long way too in promoting the mental wellbeing of workers, in providing social outlets, means of interaction and support systems to counteract the stress that all too often accompanies the demands of work.

Families

Increasing emphasis is now being placed on viewing mentally ill individuals as members of families, and providing treatment accordingly. Since it has been proven that interactions between persons and members of their families can either have a positive or detrimental impact on dealing with their mental illness, family therapy is now emphasised, where possible. This type of therapy has far-reaching effects in helping family members to understand the mental health issue their loved one has and equipping them with the appropriate knowledge and resources to aid in their helping the affected person. The individual sufferer benefits from not feeling isolated in his/her battle against the illness and draws strength from the loving social network around them.

Individual members of society

All of us, as members of local and international communities, can play our part in reaching out to those we feel may be lacking in the support they need to deal with their situations and in continuing to educate ourselves to become more knowledgeable, compassionate members of society. I want you to know that before doing lots of reading and research on the topic during this month, I totally didn’t know even one quarter of the things I’ve just spoken about! So, what I’m hoping to achieve through these articles is to spread a bit of knowledge, but also to appeal to each one of you dear readers to take the time to learn more about mental health and all the important things that surround it. There’s tons of information available publicly out there, so easy to access that really it’s just up to you to take a little time to look at some of them. I truly believe it is our social responsibility to do so. Who knows, somewhere down the line, someone you know, are related to, or even yourself, could benefit from this information in a lifesaving kind of way.

Cath Kidston (UK) Avenue USA