Most people in our western world will get a lot of education as they go through life. Mandatory school years, college and university and in recent times masters and PhDs, also a lot of work related training.
Yet, none of these studies will teach us about human mental wellbeing. What does it really mean to be mentally well?
Generation after generation we live our lives in the same darkness, following the crowds, sometimes surrounded by neglect, abuse, unrealistic demands, uncertainty, loneliness, inadequacy, fear, isolation, and so on. Our modern society has made unimagined progress in a variety of areas, but we have not still reached an agreement around what mental wellbeing is about.
Wellbeing = realise human potential?
There is no definition for mental wellbeing yet, and the closer we can refer to is the World Health Organization definition of mental health. This changed in recent years from “the absence of mental illness …” to “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.
Coming from an institution, this definition sounds a bit cold, lacks substance, and can be perceived as biased. It does not mention kindness, love, compassion, happiness, satisfaction or joy, also no mention of family, friends and meaningful relationships, no mention of authenticity, honesty, integrity and the right to be who we want to be. The WHO definition of mental health talks only about expectations from us people, directing us towards a robot or a lifeless human profile, failing to acknowledge the difficulties human beings face in living in this world, let alone to explain how any of these expectations can be realistically met.
We could naturally ask what does it mean to realize human potential? How can we measure if human potential has been met or not and what is the impact on people when that measure is constantly changing? Is this not leaving people under the pressure to adjust their lives to a confusing and equivocal social expectation only to avoid being labelled mentally ill?
People are discouraged to share their inner experience
Another reasonable inquiry would be: why are people expected to cope with the stresses of life? What are the “normal stresses of life” and what does it mean by “coping”? This statement is rather vague and somehow uncaring towards the human being. What if people cannot at times cope with the difficulties of life in the way they are expected? Are they labeled mentally ill? Is human experience so easy to understand and so insignificant to be categorised simply in healthy or ill? We can explore further if this is a tolerant and sensitive perspective or it rather discourages people to own their inner experience and reinforces the stigma around “mental health”.
We can also inquire what do we mean by people that work productively and fruitfully? What is productive work and what is fruitful work? How is this understood and measured from an industry to another, from a place to another? What about people that go through natural searches and changes in their careers and might be between jobs or unemployed?
And what do we mean by people that are able to make a contribution to their community? Are people mentally unhealthy if they decide to live their lives with little contact with the community, or for a reason or another do not make a financial contribution to support the community for a while?
Is mental wellbeing entirely the responsibility of the person?
The WHO definition will be read by billions of people. They will take it as a social norm and will try to fit into that standard. Whilst they struggle to make sense of those expectations they will remain confused and distressed which will affect their overall mental wellbeing.
Sadly, the voice of the polarised view mental health vs mental illness is still very loud. It is in fact louder than the voices of millions of people that are struggling in their lives and offering them no alternative to labels, categorizations and pills shows little understanding of our human life experience on Earth.
Human mental wellbeing is not entirely the responsibility of the person. People are not able to make choices in all aspects of their lives, but on the contrary. People are exposed to the world around them which will influence who they are, what they do in life, and of course how they feel within. People are stuck in this world and cannot escape. Where could they go?
Wellbeing as an oscillating inner state in humans
I am looking at mental wellbeing from a different perspective and I would like to share it with you.
We can acknowledge that we live in a universe that we are still trying to discover and we can accept that we still have many questions unanswered about who we are, where are we coming from and what is our purpose on Earth. I noticed in my work that when we manage to accept this fact of life we tend to understand more about the source of our uncertainties and inner fears and we learn to support each other in navigating through the inherent difficulties that life on Earth naturally brings.
Learning how the human mind works helps us accept that we are unfinished and imperfect in our creation and we are too complex to be analysed, diagnosed and categorized as either mentally healthy or mentally ill. How great it would be if we could remove the concept of mental health and mental illness from our conversations altogether and start looking at mental wellbeing as an oscillating inner state in humans which is natural and should be embraced by every single one of us as it is.
Rather than spending so much time, money and other resources trying to figure out if we are healthy or ill we could admit that our mental functioning is always fluctuating on a continuum of experience between well and unwell and that is absolutely human and nothing to be shamed for, and then focus our energy on finding support, ways of adjustment, self-development and eventually healing.
Shifting focus from individual differences to individual similarities
It would be amazing if we could admit that we are more similar than different in how we experience life on Earth and rethink how we approach psychology. We could shift focus from individual differences to individual similarities which will promote equality and cohesion and will reduce the division and intolerance we see in the world today.
In a more tolerant world, people will talk openly about their inner experience and those around them will accept them as they are and will offer them support. In that world children will be taught from early ages that their experiences are natural and they will receive unconditional care, love and acceptance.
This way children will learn self-acceptance and self-compassion and will replicate it in the relationships they develop later in life. Perhaps then we can talk about mental wellbeing as a right for every single one of us and about a more peaceful, tolerant and fair world for us all.