Our mental health is complex. It is a multi-faceted construct that is constantly shifting and can change dramatically over a short period of time. There are plethora of different risk factors and protective factors to understand and many different approaches from prevention to recovery and everything in between.
For this reason, I believe we need to advance beyond "improving mental health", "mental health awareness" and "mental health experts". We need to improve the application of certain phrases and particularly tackle the blurred boundaries and lack of distinction between poor mental health and mental illness. We need to be much more specific, sophisticated and accurate with our understanding and vocabulary.
We wouldn’t dream of using this catch-all approach to our physical health; instead we have professionals operating in very specific fields within this area. For example, since running a half marathon several weeks ago, I have had problems with my knee. Now, I may visit my GP and request an X-Ray with a radiologist who may then refer me to an orthopaedic specialist. Alternatively, I may speak to a physiotherapist. I may also choose to speak to my Personal Trainer about exercises I could use to help strengthen my quads. There are all specialists with expert knowledge in their field; they respect their own credentials and those of their peers and (in the most part) do not act outside the boundaries of their expertise.
Yet we appear to have adopted this umbrella term to our mental health which really doesn’t make sense. Mental health is not a single unit or entity so it should not be treated as one. From an organisational perspective, employers need to move away from having isolated events or days talking about improving mental health and be much more targeted and focused in their approach, being mindful of exactly what needs are being addressed and why, what challenges they want to overcome and what they want to achieve.
Are they addressing concerns with stress? Poor levels of motivation? Low performance and morale? Tackling conflict? Has a recent change increased levels of anxiety and apprehension? Is there an expectation of perfection? Are working hours leading to an increased risk of burnout? Addressing all of these issues would broadly fall under 'improving mental health' but they are specific problems with specific solutions.
Similarly, those operating within this field need to be absolutely clear on their specialism and the role they play in the bigger picture, operating as masters of their profession as opposed to being a jack-of-all-trades.
When developing wellbeing strategies with clients I frequently use the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle; every business has a different picture they are trying to piece together and to be successful there are multiple different shapes that need to be put together in the right way. It needs patience and focus and a strategy. This strategy needs to consider the necessary action required at three levels:
Primary Interventions: At an organisational level with an aim to modify or eliminate psychosocial risks at source. It is understanding what aspects of the workplace could be detrimental to staff mental wellbeing and how these can be managed more effectively.
Secondary Interventions: Focused around education and training, enabling prompt detection of signs of concern and helping workers to cope with high pressure situations and increase their coping resources.
Tertiary Interventions: Focused on the individual with an aim to minimise the effects that result from exposure to the psychosocial hazards and managing and treating illness.
My specialism is within psychosocial risk management, psychological resilience and mental wellbeing, focusing specifically on primary and secondary interventions.This is where my skills and knowledge lie and I will always refer work to trusted associates if I feel that the need is beyond my own expertise. This is why I have a network consisting of an extremely broad spectrum of associates, from mindfulness instructors, nutritionists, hypnotherapists and occupational health nurses to vocational rehabilitation specialists, solicitors and H&S consultants. They do their thing, I do mine, everyone wins.
We need an increased clarity of the role everyone plays in the jigsaw and develop beyond simply "improving mental health":
If you are a company developing your wellbeing strategy think about what your bigger picture is and the individual components that you need to put the pieces together.
If you are a practitioner, what is your specific role? What are you a master of? Do you operate at primary, secondary or tertiary level?
Let’s start progressing beyond this generic vocabulary and develop solutions using industry specialists that can together put all the pieces together.
Written by Sadie Restorick MSc MABP