We need to talk more openly about mental well-being and mental health. Now.
Last weekend restaurants, gyms, and other public-facing businesses finally opened their doors to customers in Singapore, and we were allowed to meet non-family members, which, for people who, like me, live alone and don’t have any relatives around, actually meant finally being able to meet people, period.
The lockdown was put in place for very good reasons, of course, but it was about time. I thought that I managed the entire lockdown period rather well (2 or 3 months? I can’t even remember anymore… my sense of time has been warped like many others during this pandemic), and I was quite proud of it, but if I look deep inside me and I am honest with myself, I will have to admit that I have suffered a lot. This has been hard, and it has been tough, especially on my mental well-being.
Some days I felt great and in an excellent mood, others I felt sad and depressed. Sometimes I was elated, others I was very irritable and jumpy. In the last couple of weeks, I was getting close to the edge, so I am thankful to the Singaporean government for finally letting us go out and meet other people. Still, this is not finished, and we aren’t coming back to the lives we had before the pandemic any time soon, if ever.
I’m afraid it will take me a while to recover and heal the mental scars that this painful experience has left on me. By talking to friends and colleagues and reading about it, I know I am not alone, and many other people will have passed this experience with negative effects on their mental well-being. Many of them will have suffered serious mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, stress or even PTSD.
A taboo we should talk about
Mental health is a bit of a taboo topic, people don’t like to talk about it. You can say to a colleague, “I went to see the doctor because I had pain in my stomach”, but you wouldn’t tell the same person “I went to the psychiatrist or a counsellor because I’m having panic attacks / stress / I am really depressed”. You wouldn’t talk about those, even less so if you suffer schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder.
All these are real illnesses, causing a lot of pain not only to the people suffering them, but also to their loved ones, but we prefer not to talk about them, due to shame, fear of being stigmatised or many other reasons.
The WHO estimates that one in four people will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder in their lives. This other source estimates that in the US, almost half of all adults will experience a mental illness at least once in their lifetime, and only around 40% of those with a mental health problem receive medical treatment.
Depending on where you look, you will get different statistics, but whichever way you look at it, it is likely that either you or someone very close to you will experience a mental illness sometime during your life.
We all know cases, sometimes very close to us, so why don’t we talk more openly about them? And why don’t we seek help more often when we suffer from it?
How to stay sane when the world’s going mad
“How to stay sane when the world’s going mad” is the title of an article from the MIT Technology Review that I found so apt to the times we are living that I had to borrow it here. The article delves into a timely topic today: how can we maintain some sort of sanity in these crazy times?
You can do what is usually recommended to maintain a healthy mind: have enough sleep, a good diet, mindfulness or meditation exercises, yoga, sports and healthy habits in general. All this helps, of course, but try not to be too hard on yourself and not to stress over it. The idea is to release stress, not to increase it, and we often are too demanding and hard on ourselves when planning sports, yoga, and the like, and trying to squeeze “healthy habits” into our cramped schedules.
Try different things and settle with what works best for you, not what others tell you you should do. Changes of habit have more chances of success if they come from within, not if they feel like something imposed by someone else.
The Art of Not Giving a F…
There is this book with this provocative title, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson, that I really recommend. It’s a great read for these crazy times. The premise of the book is simple but powerful: focus on what is important in your life, really focus on it, and forget about all the rest.
You shouldn’t care less about anything that isn’t important to you, but we often get embroiled in doing things that are important to our parents, our partners, society or an ideal of you that only exists in your mind. This only brings suffering and dissatisfaction into our lives.
It is a simple enough premise, but it’s not so easy to implement or live by. That’s why the book has 200 pages and not just one paragraph explaining the premise as I have done above. If you look deep inside, you will realise that what really matters to you is less centred on money, the new car or that plump promotion and more on people, love and relationships.
Love is in the air
Human beings are loving machines, and I don’t mean this just in a romantic sense. We are made to love other people, be it family members, friends, or our other half, and we are really happy and full when we are content with how our relationships are going, when we love and feel loved. That’s why this pandemic has also been so tough for most of us; because even if you have been locked down with your loved ones, you probably missed spending time with your friends and wider family members.
Mental well-being is a fine balance between love, relationships, economic safety, overall health, and finding your purpose in life, but from all of these, the most important ones are love and relationships, at least in my humble opinion.
Whether you are still locked down, or you are free to go out, think about what you are doing to stay in touch with your loved ones, if you are talking enough to your parents, seeing your friends or doing enough Zoom calls to talk to them if you can’t. If you aren’t, what are you waiting for? Take the phone and make that call right now. Trust me, clamming up won’t make you feel better.
Discover your WHY or your Ikigai
I have mentioned above finding your purpose in life in passing, as though it weren’t that important. It is very important. I don’t want to enter into a long philosophical diatribe about the consequences of Nietzsche announcing “God is dead” and the angst and unhappiness the lack of purpose and the whole pointlessness of our existence created on both nihilists and existentialists, but there has been plenty of debate about this topic in both philosophical and psychological circles.
It seems that having a purpose, a why, a goal to strive for, creates very clear psychological benefits for all of us, whereas the lack of it usually causes apathy and even depression.
I already wrote about Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why in the context of how consumers buy above all the WHY of companies or their purpose, not their WHAT or their products. The same book highlights the importance of discovering your own WHY. Why are you here?
I would argue that the better question to ask oneself is WHAT FOR: what are you here for? This is a fine distinction but an important one. WHY looks more to causes and the past, whereas WHAT FOR looks at the purpose and the future. A goal and future-oriented mindset, if positive, is more engaging and psychologically beneficial than one anchored in the past. So what is your purpose in life? What are you here for? What are you planning to do with the rest of your life?
The Japanese have a similar concept, called ikigai, that refers to having a purpose or a direction in life. When we have a purpose that guides us, we are at peace with ourselves, and we have a compass to follow as we redirect our actions towards our purpose. Research links ikigai with increased happiness and even longer life expectancy, so what are you waiting for to start practising it? Think about your purpose in life and work towards it.
Mental well-being in the humane workplace
Individuals are mainly responsible for their own well-being, mental or otherwise, but we spend a big part of our lives in our workplaces and interacting with colleagues and clients, so the companies who employ us also have an important role to play in this arena.
As with many other similar issues, it is the right thing to do and, therefore, a moral obligation for companies, but it is also better for them, as working towards improving the mental well-being of their workforce enhances productivity, increases engagement, reduces absenteeism, attracts and retains talent and has other innumerable advantages.
Many companies realised this and are working on it. There are many ways in which they can support their employees’ mental well-being. They can offer and promote an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that includes counselling services, they can offer yoga, mindfulness or meditation sessions, train their managers on how to talk about mental health with their teams or launch awareness campaigns. Having great leaders at all levels in the organization is also a good way to keep a mentally sane workforce, so great leadership matters, once again.
See also: A Manifesto Against Hustle Culture
The thing is, if we really want to have a humane workplace and we want to strive for a more Humane Future of Work, which I think most of us do, mental well-being has to be an important part of the recipe for success.
We need to be able to talk about it more openly, take out the stigma from it and create an environment in which people feel safe talking about it. Then we need to ensure we have the right policies, programs, leaders and support in place to help people find their own path towards their own mental well-being and provide medical help whenever necessary.
But the first step has to be for us to be able to talk about it freely and in a safe environment. Let’s talk about mental well-being then, shall we?