Just a few years ago, events such as Mad World and many others simply did not exist.
They couldn’t exist — the stigma associated with mental health still ensnared every conversation. Its grip tighter than a child’s, afraid to let go for fear of the unknown. For fear of transition. For fear of the future…
Embracing the future of mental health isn’t easy because:
1. We’re still grappling with how we define and ‘solve’ it. Is mental health a spectrum, a disease or could it be a superpower? [See TV show: Legion.]
2. Despite the emphasis on “innovation”, the current social paradigm is so tightly tied to profit that most businesses won’t change tack because they don’t want to risk rocking the money boat and upsetting their shareholders.
These obstacles tie into the most integral change society must make in order to truly help people’s mental health…
Culture is the ultimate enabler. Without transforming the social fabric that underlies mental health — i.e. how we as human beings relate to and value the mind — unfortunately, even the most highly evidenced strategies known to mankind will have little to no impact.
So, what tools do we have at our disposal to change culture?
“Language is the handmaiden of culture.”
Creating a culture that cultivates mental health requires a tactical approach to language. If language is the vehicle through which culture is transported, we are long overdue an MOT on the mental health-mobile.
At this year’s Mad World event, there was no shortage of words picked to encourage open conversations; one of the Stevenson/Farmer review’s key tenants.
Ruby Wax’s comedic diagnosis of society as “frazzled” leaves the door wide open for people from all walks of life to join the conversation around stress. Words like “happiness” and “thriving” have also helped people to align with the broader definition of mental health.
However, these particular words are often doing more harm than good — perpetuating confusion for any employer attempting to put their newfound knowledge into practice and measure success.
How do you define happiness? How do you measure it? Is it even the right goal?
For a multinational corporation, ‘happiness’ is exactly the kind of term that makes policies around mental health so difficult to adopt: It sounds great in theory, but it’s not exactly easy to understand what “achieving happiness” looks like.
For ancient people, happiness was quite literally what happened to us — a time when ‘luck’ and ‘fate’ dictated life. Only in recent years have we started to separate the term from its etymological root, turning happiness into something we can and should create.
It’s easy to say ancient societies’ definition of happiness was narrow, but I wouldn’t speak so soon if I were you. Why? Philosophy played an important role in their culture and as such, created a wide variety of vocabulary used to describe the mind and what it means to lead a good life. A topic of conversation that was much more commonplace then than it is today.
Interpreting the mind through the lens of ancient Greek words, for example, empowers us with more tools to discuss mental health.
The Greek word, eudaimonia is commonly translated as ‘flourishing’ and its links to purpose or telos, ‘having an ultimate aim’, creates an invaluable space for new conversations about mental health. This kind of dialogue is particularly poignant given the secular nature of society today where suicide, a nihilistic state of mind taken to its conclusion, is the leading cause of death for adults aged 20–34.
Whilst measuring telos may not be easy, language provides a platform from which to begin. However, as with any plan of action, there must also be an end in sight, which leads me onto the second way we can transform culture…
Changing culture isn’t easy when we’re measuring success against old yardsticks. To create a society where mental health is authentically valued, it must be built into the bedrock of the economy.
The modern concept of Gross Domestic Product or GDP was first developed by Simon Kuznets for a US Congress report in 1934. In this report, Kuznets warned against its use as a measure of welfare. In spite of this, after the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, GDP became the main tool for measuring a country’s economy.
For many people, money is the definition of success. This makes sense given the direction in which our society is pointing, GDP, but it doesn’t stack up when we measure against happiness.
In the United States, despite GDP per capita more than doubling since the ’50s, happiness levels have decreased. Why? Because beyond a certain point where we can satisfy our wants and needs, financial wealth becomes superfluous and other factors come into play…our social life, our commute and of course the pleasure we derive from work are just a few highlights. The study above comes from a fantastic book by Richard Layard called “Happiness: Lessons from a New Science” a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.
So, is it as simple as switching to the Happiness Index? Or creating a new one? Gross Domestic Wellbeing (GDW) has my vote!
Possibly. However, if anyone has been keeping up with Brexit I’m sure you would agree with me when I say don’t hold your breath. This kind of change just won’t happen overnight.
Whilst we wait for GDW to replace GDP, there is something else we can do: Change the key metrics used to measure a company’s performance.
NPS scores and Glassdoor are already wreaking havoc on ‘traditional’ industries so it’s clear the demand for better working environments exists.
Mental health and wellbeing form a fundamental part of every workplace. Employers that adopt a kind of GDW for their company will not just be surviving on profit, but thriving as a whole, with a long future ahead of them.
Are you ready for change?
On both the individual and the organisational level: Change is hard. Especially in the context of a topic that was stigmatised until just a few years ago.
Having worked in big companies, small companies and started my own — experience has taught me that the culture of a company is only as difficult to change as the people. Employers and employees that embrace a ‘growth’ mindset (see Carol Dweck’s writing on the subject) will be open to learning and adapting; without which you can say sayonara to change.
Learning is an important part of this cultural shift.
We were never taught about the mind in school, mental wellbeing fell to the wayside. That’s OK, we cannot change the past. This simply means that as we move into the future, patience will prove itself integral in our ability to transform people’s attitudes towards mental health as a whole, including its role in the workplace.
Many conversations must be had and most will feel hopeless to start. However, there isn’t a single human being on this planet who doesn’t deserve the time to understand:
- The powerful relationship that exists between them and their mind;
- Its impact on their work & family life, and
- How we can change society for the better by uniting under the banner of mental health.
This is the Mental Health Movement and everyone is invited.
About the Author
George Taktak is a 26-year-old mental health activist. At age 23 he created the Instagram page @HowMental to catalyse a mass movement for better mental health and has since gained a following of over 100k people across social media. He writes and speaks on the subject, having recently performed his poem “The Longing” alongside the Secretary of State for Education. George consults companies on how to cultivate mental wellbeing in the workplace and his passion for sustainable change led him to start a series of workshops on mental health for entrepreneurs; now running at Somerset House. George’s current focus is Feeliom, a mobile app he designed to empower preventive mental healthcare by enabling people to easily express emotions through technology and care for their mental wellbeing on a continuous basis. Feeliom is due for public release by the end of 2019.