An often misunderstood issue, mental health touches every corner of our lives, so how do we build a strong foundation for wellness? Dr Linda Mthenjane has the answers.
What is mental health and how does it affect the way we show up in the world both at work and at home?
Often when you ask what physical health is, words like diet, gym, good sleep etc., come to mind. But when you ask anyone what their mental health is like, people immediately respond with words like anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder. Mental health seems to mainly be defined in the negative, something that “happens” to you almost in a mysterious way while, conversely, physical health is thought of as a state that can be attained and maintained if you do certain things.
So, what is mental health? It’s the ability to use your mind/brain as a tool to help you have amazingly supportive relationships, work through life’s storms, bounce back, work productively, and basically live your best life. Mental health speaks to how our brain is wired which then impacts how we think, feel, see the world and behave.
Mental illness, on the other hand, refers to alterations in our thinking, our emotions and/or behaviours that create distress and impaired functioning, in social, work and relationships. Mental illness is often a result of chemical changes in the brain and more often than not has a family history.
We should think about mental health as a continuum. On the one hand the ability to thrive and manage our stressors and on the far end of the spectrum is feeling totally out of control and out of touch with the majority reality when we have a mental illness.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), 1 in 3 South Africans have a mental illness. This translates to roughly 20 million people (a third of people in our country) experiencing some form of mental illness. It occurs across class, culture and race. We know that 9% of all teenage deaths are attributed to suicide and a massive 90% of that 9% have an underlying mental illness such as depression, substance abuse disorder and anxiety.
So, why don’t we know more about mental illness when it has such a devastating effect? Physical illnesses like cancer, or diabetes, often draw major public support while mental illness tends to attract negative descriptions and stigmatisation. This type of shaming and value judgment has been key in forcing discussions on mental illness underground and its sufferers feeling isolated and blamed rather than supported.
But what we do know and have come to learn is that the ability to understand and manage brain disorders - and the journey to being healthy emotionally - can promote productivity and effectiveness at work. It also improves our ability to harness healthy relationships and connections which we need to survive, and it allows us to adapt to changes in our life and cope with adversity.
What tools can we use to make ourselves mentally strong and resilient?
Connect with people through empathy and understanding. Focus on finding trustworthy and compassionate people who validate your feelings. Also try to balance rest with exercise. If you are tossing and turning in bed then get up and do something soothing or boring but avoid any electronics.
Consider what gives your life meaning to improve your mood and mental well-being. Ask yourself how you find your purpose and sense of meaning.
You should try to experience your emotions by listening to your body. While not all emotions are pleasant it’s important to allow emotions to run their course. If you allow them to flow through you they don’t last longer than a minute and a half. So, the next time you feel stressed ask yourself what information is this feeling giving me. It is a gift. Be non-judgmentally present and try to understand what it is telling you to do.
What are the telling signs that could mean your mental health needs to be addressed?
Mental health is about being able to cope with the normal stresses of life, to work productively and fruitfully, and to be able to contribute to our community. It includes our emotional (how I feel from anger, fear, joy, passion, love, shame and guilt), psychological (I am in touch with reality, how my mind is wired to respond) and social (can I connect to people and can they connect to me) well-being.
When we are unable to do this, and when we have ruled out physical causes of not being able to connect to others, cope with life, contribute and be productive at work we may be moving on the continuum towards illness.
How can we set ourselves up for success in a world of constant change?
An important quality to survive is resilience. When life throws us challenges that we can’t face, we may feel helpless and/or hopeless.
We may even experience what is commonly known as trauma, which is better understood as an injury to the brain than an illness. In fact, some groups prefer the term post-traumatic stress injury to post-traumatic stress disorder. Left unaddressed, injury can cause both physical and mental problems, including fatigue, irritability, nightmares, excessive worry, guilt, anger, sleep problems, lack of concentration, emotional numbness, unhappiness, and sheer emotional exhaustion. It can even lead to more serious illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
Even though we all respond differently to trauma, we can all build resilience to it. How?
● Understanding this allows you to move from a mindset of “what’s wrong with me?” to a more empowering “this is what’s going on with me”.
● Keep things in perspective and try to identify areas of irrational thinking, and adopt a more balanced and realistic thinking pattern. For instance, you may not be able to change a highly stressful event but you can change how you interpret and respond to it. And chances are high that in previous times of distress, you did learn how to respond effectively to new difficult situations.
How can the young professionals series of workshops help me to be mentally strong and successful?
The family we come from creates the template for how we relate to others, who we become and how our sense of self is formed, how we handle life’s challenges and even how we are able to contribute to society.
When we grow up in less nurturing or downright neglectful environments we tend not to be able to develop the psychological core we need to succeed.
Our workshop will enable young professional to thrive in their careers by:
● Understanding and developing their sense of self, their self-esteem and boundaries.
● Developing insights, skills and appropriate empathy.
● Understanding how identity develops in marginalised and valued groups in society.
● Developing mechanisms for protection against overwhelming experiences.
● Being able to appropriately handle conflict situation techniques.
● Understanding how to integrate the various aspects of your life.
Dr Linda Mthenjane is a registered clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Space Between Us. Her ikigai is to help people live more connected lives.