Women sat meditating

Expanding our mindset when talking about mental health

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By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line

As discussed in my recent post about the renewed focus on mental health brought about by Victorian and Federal government reviews, we have a wonderful opportunity to look at mental health in a new way.

For the majority of us, we see much of our suffering as just a part of life. Our anxieties, fear, shame, judgements, guilt and sadness are all just part of life. Many of us don’t think we have the skills to deal with what comes our way. We believe we are not worthy, or are somehow to blame for our (perceived) failures. Too often we think we are wrong, not lovable, or carry such self-hatred in our hearts we just can’t breathe. At our worst, we can feel like ending it all.

There are no quick fixes.  No label or diagnosis or medication is going to make us feel better. The truth is, life is not something to be fixed. Our problems and difficulties are often just part of being human.  Instead of accepting our hardships, challenges and pain, we fight it all the way. The fact that we don’t accept this is a big part of what creates our suffering. We desperately want positivity and happiness all of the time and at any cost. We want less stress and suffering, with more control and good things.  The problem is, life doesn’t always work like that.

Let’s all STOP. There is nothing wrong with us. What if we all just saw the greatness (flaws and all) in ourselves and others?

Our mental health system is built on a medical model, that views people as sick or well. The medical model is based on the idea that mental illnesses are the product of physiological and biological factors and therefore treats mental illness as a physical disease, just like a cold or a broken bone. This approach seeks to define and label people’s complex challenges and directly address symptoms at a physiological level. The unfortunate consequence of this is that we tend to pathologise people as their problems and diseases. Medications are often the first response to fix our social and mental health problems in a system that is prone to judging and labelling people, reducing their individuality to a diagnosis. I’m well aware there are people who are unwell and need medication and hospitalisation as a necessary part of their treatment, but this is only part of the population that suffers from unhealthy mental states.

Health practitioners need to be equipped and encouraged to give due consideration to implanting self-care strategies and psychosocial skill-building that enhance resilience and coping skills to allow individuals to better manage the issues in their lives in the long term. We need an approach that is based on more consultative, collaborative and person-centred care. This means working closely with people to identify, structure and co-design approaches and strategies that are relevant to their strengths and capabilities.

Looking beyond the concept of diagnosis, and considering the everyday challenges, emotional and societal contributors that may be at the root of the problem, is part of the way forward to a better system that works for all. As UN special rapporteur on the Right to Health, Dr Dainius Puras, said in 2017, “The urgent need for a shift in approach should prioritize policy innovation at the population level, targeting social determinants and abandon the predominant medical model that seeks to cure individuals by targeting ‘disorders.’”

What if we built a mental health system around social health concepts, a society built on investing in caring and supporting each person. What if we saw each person as filled with greatness rather than a label, a disorder or a failure? What if we valued difference instead of diagnosing it?

In this time of introspection and review, we have the opportunity to create a truly holistic model of care that looks at the individual as a unique being, with strengths and challenges to overcome, not someone that needs to be ‘fixed’. Let’s look to other approaches and systems of thought from around the world to create a mental and social health system that addresses the journey of life and builds resilience, self-love and acceptance.