What if money was spent on mental health and not mental illness? I pondered this question whilst studying happiness and work done by Carol Ryff and Corey Keyes. The work centres around how we live our lives and touches on the phrase of Psychological wellbeing. According to Keyes the optimal state is that of Flourishing whereby we live a life full of purpose and meaning. According to Keyes Mental Health is every bit as much about our Positive state of mind as it is our negative. However, when we talk about mental health we generally talk about mental illnesses much of which is related to anxiety and depression.
Mental illness has reached such a proportion that the UK government is talking about spending close to £1BN to tackle this issue especially when it comes to mental health issues in children and adolescents. Whilst this recognition and subsequent funding is most welcome, there is a certain irony in that much of the mental illness this money will help to tackle has actually been caused by the system that successive governments have implemented and supported.
What are the root causes of mental illness?
I recently heard a talk by Martin Seligman in which he made the point that we currently live in a society that is safer, has more opportunities, and more abundance than we have ever had. But at the same time, we live in a society dominated by fear, judgement and shame. This starts almost from the moment we are born. We are told if we don’t perform well in schools tests our future will be bleak. If we don’t have the right looks, body shape, hair, clothes then we are ugly and unworthy. We routinely get punished for making innocent mistakes and left to take blame for situations often out of our control.
The result of this is in many cases, is the onset of mental illness related to stress, anxiety and depression. All this in a world of abundance.
What can be done to deal with growing mental illness?
In the world of Physical Health we often hear that prevention is better than a cure. As such immunisation programmes are set up to prevent once fatal diseases. We are told to exercise more and live healthy lifestyles to prevent physical illness. The government spends a good part of the health budget on funding such schemes. So why not the same when it comes to mental health? If we can use some of the near £1BN budget to finance programmes designed to improve our mental health then surely this has to be better than spending money on therapists and drugs to treat symptoms of mental illness.
How can we prevent mental Illness?
According the His Holiness the Dalai Lama the very purpose of life is to seek happiness. He goes further in that humans are naturally compassionate and trusting. There is a biological reason for this in that we nurture our young far longer than any other animal species. Most children stay with their parents for 16+ years. From the moment of birth, a baby needs to trust its mother to provide food and warmth, and likewise a mother needs to show compassion to care for her young. Strong family ties are built on compassion and trust and many of these ties last a lifetime.
However, this is done in a backdrop of living in a society of fear and judgement, which we are subjected to at a very early age. When children enter mainstream education, they are continually subjected to tests which ultimately judge how much they understand topics such as maths and English, and yet there is no measure for positive attributes relating to character strengths, happiness or compassion. If what the Dalai Larma says is correct, we are being taught to go against many of our natural human attributes. We are introduced to concepts such as fear of failure, fear of being judged and shame in under achieving. Is this the reason why there is a need to spend an exorbitant amount of money down the line to help people with mental illness?
Is there a better education system?
The Finnish education system is now regarded as the best and most successful in the world. There are some interesting aspects of the system. Children don’t start school until they are 7. It is deemed that the early years should be spent learning to play and building social contacts. They also get almost no homework for the very same reason. Social contact and happiness is deemed as important as academic results. And it seems to work. Finland has more high achievers per capita than any other western country. Furthermore, Finland routinely comes top or near top in just about every happiness league table.
How can Positive Psychology improve our education system?
It would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen if part of the government funding was to be spent with Positive Psychologists especially working with Early years. What if children could be taught that everyone has strengths and is valued by society regardless of academic ability? What if we could tap in more to those human attributes of trust and compassion as an antidote to fear and judgement?
Personally, I would love to live in a society whereby we don’t need to spend £1BN on extra funding to treat mental illness. As John Lennon once wrote “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m sure I’m not the only one”
About the Author: Steve Emery is a current MAPP student at Bucks New University. Whilst not studying he runs a small business in Leicestershire supplying various instrumentation to both Industry and Education. Steve is very passionate about Positive Psychology and is looking to spread the word through a series of talks and workshops through his company subsidiary IDS Positivity
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