Picture the scene: James walks nervously up to a plain, unobtrusive building and knocks on the front door, where a small, discrete sign states simply, “Gymnasium”. While he waits for the door to open, James hopes nobody he knows will see him. At last, the door opens and he is given a friendly welcome by an athletic-looking man in a tracksuit with the words “personal trainer” emblazoned on it. “Hi!” he says cheerfully, “I’m Andy, please come in”. James enters with trepidation and relief. Andy invites James to sit down and offers him an energy drink. James takes it gratefully and says, “It’s taken me so long to get here. Nobody knows I’m here. My boss wouldn’t think so well of me if he knew I was going to a gym. My family would be upset, too”. James pauses and looks up at Andy, saying, “My Father would be mortified by the thought of me on a running machine”.
Does that scenario seem absurd? Farcical? Nonsense? Now replace the word “gym” with the word “counselling” and “personal trainer” with “counsellor”. Reframe the whole scene in your mind: imagine that James is not going to a gym, instead he’s going to see a counsellor. Not quite so absurd a scene now, is it? Much more realistic, isn’t it? But why? Why do people see gyms as positive places where people get fit and strong, but then see counselling as something for the mentally unhinged, something to be spoken about only in hushed tones, or not at all?
Mental health problems receive so much bad press because, historically, they have been seen through a medical lens: People with mental health problems are seen as “ill” and needing to get “well”. While it is true that some people have mental health problems of such magnitude that they require medical care, the majority of sufferers go about their daily lives with no apparent problems. Instead, many keep their struggle hidden away behind veils of shame. High-profile figures have done much in recent years to remove the stigma attached to mental suffering, but for many the prejudice remains, as is revealed by a cursory glance through the comments section of any social media post on the subject.
Today, on World Mental Health Day, I challenge those who hold prejudice to take a different view of mental health. Instead of seeing mental health problems as “illness”, instead view the mind as an organ which needs to be kept healthy. How do we keep our bodies healthy? Answer: through physical exercise and rest. How should we keep our minds healthy? Answer: Through mental exercise and rest. The gym is to physical fitness what the counsellor is to mental fitness.
Let us take the analogy a step further: the mind and body are interconnected, the distinction is blurred. Certainly, the mind controls the body, but the body also controls the mind. If you don’t believe me, remember the last time you tried to do something mentally taxing with a hangover; your body was in control then, wasn’t it?
Imagine how different the world would be if you could go to a gym for your physical and mental health. Imagine being able to have a counselling session as well as a training session. Imagine if people were as proud of doing things for their mental wellbeing as for their physical wellbeing. Imagine if we championed mental health as much as we celebrate physical health. Imagine going into work knowing that your employer valued your mental and physical wellbeing, that you could have an open an honest conversation with your boss about how you were feeling, that your employer would take your concerns seriously and make sure you were well supported in your role. Many people are lucky enough to have such supportive employers, but many more do not and the workforce suffers as a result. The UK lost 16 million working days to mental health problems in 2016. That works out as 11% of the total number of sick days – or £1.9 billion – a figure which has risen 71% since 2011. If employers were to acknowledge the crucial importance of helping employees maintain good mental health, then workplaces across the UK would be fundamentally transformed.
Put like that, doesn’t it seem absurd that we don’t put mental health on the same footing as physical health? Happily, things are changing, but we have a whole lot further to go. If you want more information on World Mental Health Day, and what you can do to help, visit the World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health Day page, here: http://www.who.int/mental_health/world-mental-health-day/2017/en/
10th October 2017