Mental Health is increasingly on the radar of schools as more becomes known about the mental health of young people and the recognition that mental health in childhood has implications of adult well-being. Historically there have been negative associations with the term ‘mental health’, which might explain why people have not openly discussed it until now. But perceptions can be inaccurate, and so we want to redress this by exploring what it actually means and most importantly, what we all can do about it.
So, what is mental health?
‘No Health without Mental Health’ (1) defines mental health as ‘a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment.’ Notice how this definition is positive in how it describes mental health, bringing it in line with the positive way in which we talk about physical health without stigma. This frees us up to explore the factors that contribute to our mental health in more detail.
The following definitions provide a helpful way to separate the concepts of mental health into well-being and resources, in order that we can identify where we are on track or where we might need to build upon:
Mental well-being (2) – This is a dynamic state, in which the individual is able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, and contribute to their community. It is enhanced when an individual is able to fulfill their personal and social goals and achieve a sense of purpose in society.
Mental Capital (3) – This encompasses a person’s cognitive and emotional resources. It includes their cognitive ability, how flexible and efficient they are at learning, and their “emotional intelligence” such as their social skills and resilience in the face of stress. It therefore conditions how well a person is able to contribute effectively to society, and also to experience a high personal quality of life.
By breaking mental health down into the concept of functional well-being and the mental resources or capital available, we can start to think of the concept of mental health as a dynamic process, rather like a balance that tips one way or the other depending on the different situations in which we find ourselves and the capital we have available to us. Whilst we can see from the definitions above that many factors contribute to our mental health, perhaps the biggest challenge to our mental health is stress.
Let’s talk about stress…
Stress is another word that is frequently used to describe many different scenarios and feelings and has become a regular and acceptable addition to every day vocabulary across ages, but what is it? Stress is a term that originates from engineering and refers to the response of a system to an applied force. For us humans, it is related to when we perceive a threat, challenge or harm/loss (4). When this happens, it triggers a response in our autonomic nervous system that acts immediately to keep us alive – this is commonly known as the fight or flight response and explains why we experience stress physically.
It is important to note that stress is normal and we actually need some stress in order to be motivated and driven. Most stress is transient and is triggered from a situation happening around us. However, stress becomes a problem when it is ongoing or ‘chronic’, because this is not how the autonomic nervous system was designed. The system was designed to keep us alive in situations of immediate or short-term threat, challenge or harm/loss. When the stress response is activated for prolonged periods it can seriously impact our health and well-being, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Knowing that stress can cause a negative impact on our well-being, we need to understand and build resilience so that we are able to recognise signs and symptoms of stress in ourselves and others, and also how we manage adversity and life’s challenges. Whilst this sounds simple, it is not. Too many of us are either unaware of our own stress responses, or feel unable to take action to mediate them due to the demands made upon us in our every day lives.
Our mission as clinicians working in the field of mental health is that by partnering schools, we can help teachers to provide young people (and themselves) with the tools to promote awareness, resilience and build their mental capital. In line with latest government paper from the Department of Health and Social Care published on 5 November 2018, ‘Prevention is better than cure’ – we very much believe how vital it is to educate our young people on the value of resilience and skills to promote well-being as a key aspect of a rounded education program.
So, what is resilience?
Resilience is a hot topic at the moment and something that features in the marketing material of most schools. Whilst we know that building resiliency is vital for being able to manage life’s challenges and stressors, what does this actually mean? In the context of mental health and wellbeing as described above, the definition of resilience that we have found most helpful is that provided by Pemberton (2015),
“It is the capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings and behaviours when faced by a life disruption or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser and more able.”
In contrast to the commonly used bouncing ball metaphor, resilience is not just about bouncing back, it is far more than this. It is about understanding our thought processes, linking these to our feelings and behaviours and learning from the challenges that we face. This more complex view of resilience, is therefore about personal flexibility, growth and change, acknowledging the role of the brain in learning from experience through the memory systems, and the role of executive functions in the way we deal with a stressor.
Thinking now about both mental health and resilience, you will notice that there are many commonalities in the definitions relating to pressure, stress and the ability to manage life’s challenges. In terms of our mental health, we experience problems when we are faced with prolonged periods of stress or pressure. However, as with most conditions, if we look after our brain health and well-being, learn to self-care and keep our resiliency reserves topped up, most can be prevented.
What can you do?
A good place to start is by developing emotional awareness and understanding what your individual triggers and symptoms are. Then you can add and modify strategies to suit. In general terms, there are a few basics that we can all do to reduce stress, increase resilience and strengthen mental health. These are getting enough sleep, eating well, moving our bodies, connecting with others socially, keeping our brains stimulated and active through learning new skills and making time for downtime to allow yourselves to relax and switch off.
At Delivering Resilience Ltd, we are passionate about reducing the stigma around Mental Health and Stress. Our mission is to help people fully understand the concepts of resilience and brain health, to promote human potential, develop skills and resources to self-care, create long lasting solutions and make informed choices to improve their lives.
If you would like to know more about how to promote well-being amongst your students, you can join Delivering Resilience at our our ‘Pupil Resilience – Improving Psychological Health and Emotional Wellbeing’ course on 7 May.
Written by Dr. Anwen Whitham and Lisa Jones