May is Mental Health Awareness month and this week, 10-17th May, is Mental Health Awareness week. I wonder if you know this, and I wonder if you care? Mental health is still a stigmatised subject to discuss; we’re getting better at talking about it, but we’re not getting better at dealing with it.
Antidepressant use has sky-rocketed since 1992- prescriptions for antidepressants have increased 100% since 2015, or 500% since 1992 and 1.1 million people are, unfortunately, on benefits because of their mental health difficulties. Mmmh. I wonder what this is telling us? I wonder what the trend is that is making antidepressant use increase, year upon year? Don’t get me wrong; I am not against medication for mental health difficulties; I know in some cases the medication taken can be life-changing for some people. I am more interested in the deeper causes than that. What is going on in our society, and why are we getting sadder and less fulfilled, as a nation?
I have been studying for my (final ever!!!) exam in Professional Issues in Counselling Psychology, and, given that this is Doctoral level, I did a LOT of reading for this. In fact, I ordered several books, too 🙂 But seriously, I was engrossed in what is a mix of theory, lived experience, political discussion and the psychology of the changes that we are being forced through. These changes are being pushed on to us from so many different areas; by the society around us, work, school, government, media, social media and peers- you name it, we’re getting pressure from every direction, so just how does it affect us?
I’m really not going to go into masses of theory, so don’t worry there; but hang in there, it’s worth it, I promise! Do you know we have a Minister for Loneliness in Parliament in the UK? Yes, yes we do. She’s called Tracey Crouch, and she is here to cure our loneliness. Or is she? How is she going to make us feel better and less isolated? Is it flinging money at more therapists in what is an already hugely overstretched NHS? Or is it at a more fundamental grassroots level?
Have you been into a GP surgery recently? A health centre or hospital? Have you ever noticed the signs on the walls? What are they telling you? Are they telling you to lose weight? Are they telling you to stop smoking? Join a gym? Practice some yoga or Mindfulness? Those are all great suggestions, sure, but what is at the root of all of this? Why are people unhappy?
Think about your life, what makes you unhappy? Is it your job? Your house? The fact that you are struggling to get from pay day to pay day- or even just through the first week of the month would be good! What do you see when you look in the paper, or on social media? Are these concepts/material goods/lifestyles attainable for us, in this economic climate? The answers you come up with are probably not very positive answers. Things need to change. People need to start getting involved in their lives, and the lives of the community around them- it’s the only way we can affect social change, and as I am about to show, no matter who you are, social interaction is massively significant for us all.
As a (terrible) beauty advert states- here comes the science bit! As homo sapiens, we live for groups. Really, quite literally live because of them, and for them. We’ve talked about the whole caveman thing already on this blog- we wouldn’t have survived alone- so what makes this any different now? We need to feel like we belong. We need to feel needed. Social connection is so vital for our mental health- I’ll start at the beginning and make it as quick and painless as possible, I promise!
Back in the late 1970’s a Polish Social Psychologist, Henri Tajfel, after experiments in the lab, proposed a new theory relating to the way we function as humans; Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). What Social Identity theory tells us, is that we favour the groups of people we are with and feel comfortable with- your rugby club? That’s what we would call your ‘ingroup’ and the opposing team, well, they would be… yes, you guessed it, the ‘outgroup’. So, whose side do we take in a situation like this? Well, the people we are in the same group as, of course. Why is that, I hear you ask? Well, how does being a part of that group make you feel? Accepted? Happy? Fulfilled? Yes, we all feel that way when we are accepted, welcomed, supported and helped in a group. We all feel the need for that acceptance. ALL of us. And when we have groups that we are happy with, it makes our lives better. We have something to look forward to and enjoy, and in turn, this increases our mental health and wellbeing.
Taking care of your mental well-being is just as important as taking care of your physical well-being and is something that you can take an active part in- taking an interest in your own life and community! Getting involved in your community will not only make you feel included, but it will give you a sense of purpose and happiness. Yes, I really do know, and understand, that it’s so hard to get out and about when you’re feeling unwell and low, but if you can get yourself out, you really will benefit from it.
Any group works- reading club, gardening club, pole dancing classes, swimming, boules, poker (no betting here!), cooking club, art, debating, ecological, photography, football, rugby, ballet, environmental, tap… the list goes on, but the more involved you get, the better you will feel. Don’t trust me, trust these fantastic psychologists who have performed research into this fascinating, and helpful area; a group of Psychologists who used Social Theory intervention to create social groups, Groups 4 Health, for people with mental health difficulties; the result was improved psychological health and well-being (Haslam, Haslam, & Cruwys, Groups 4 Health, 2016). One group of scientists worked out that even belonging to a group of people who feel stigmatised, such as a support group, your mental well-being increases (McNamara, Stevenson, & Muldoon, 2013). There are also some scientists who believe that social identity and feeling part of a group and being included is so important that they even wrote a book about it (Haslam, Jetten, Cruwys, Dingle, & Haslam, 2018). Connection is key!
Sadly, there are other elements that we need to keep us happy- enough money, safe and affordable housing, jobs, jobs that are well paid, jobs that are not zero contract and what about social spaces that we can all use safely? A psychological theory doesn’t cover these, I am afraid, but Politics does. And it’s up to us to influence and create change in these things, if we want to feel better. The tragic school shooting’s in the USA have awoken the frustration and anger in school children across America (even across the world), who can see precisely how unfair their lives are; subject to the rules and regulations of people who do not understand the complexities of their lived experiences- as a parent, I cannot even imagine how scary it is to send your children to school every day, unsure if that is the day that a tragedy may happen at your school.
Politics aside, don’t we want to take a little bit more interest in our lives? Improve our situations- for those we love, those around us, our (future) children and families, and even just for the health and well-being of all? What do you think?
Haslam, C., Haslam, S., & Cruwys, T. (2016). Groups 4 Health. Journal of Affective Disorders, 188 – 195.
Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., & Haslam, S. A. (2018). In The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure.Abingdon: Routledge.
McNamara, N., Stevenson, C., & Muldoon, O. T. (2013). Community Identity as Resource and Context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 393 – 403.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin, & S. Worchel, The social psychology of intergroup relations(pp. 33 -47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.