Brief reflections on mental health

Towards the start of the year I transitioned into the field of mental health. After gaining some first-hand experience with some very unwell people, and how they are supported, it has since been interesting to observe how mental health is spoken about; especially on social media. I agree with some of it, for sure. Though, I would say, a significant amount of the thought on social media runs in almost exactly the opposite direction to the advice in the professional realm.

Is this due to general populations requiring completely different advice to clinical ones? Possibly. There is very likely some of that.

Though, if I were to hazard a pessimistic guess, my suspicion is that the major factor(s) are the different incentives. In one domain, the aim is results; namely improvements in mental wellbeing. There is serious skin in the game. In the other domain, however, the incentives cluster around social-status, signalling and a need to be seen spreading popular ideas.

Now, to be explicitly clear, I am by no means an expert on these matters. Although, I have attempted to listen and learn from all the experiences I have had. I consistently question my colleagues, all of whom are much more experienced than I, and I have simply accepted myself as a student of this game. So, with that said, here are some of my own, brief, thoughts on the interplay between mental health as it spoken about in the differing areas of the professional, service providing world, and the world of social media.

To start with, mental health certainly is very individualised. However, that is true of basically all physiological and psychological phenomena that humans experience. How one person processes gluten and diary, or loss and anxiety, is never going to be the same as the next. 

Without a doubt, mental health is likely to be more individualised than most things; but I would suggest to tread this line of reasoning carefully. If you consistently revert to “I know myself best,” then you will always be able to rationalise your own preferred ideas and shut yourself off to some extremely beneficial forms of objective knowledge. 

Secondly, it is also no doubt important to be “kind to yourself” — at times. However, it is also important to understand that you will always live with an inner-critic. There will always be a part of you that generates unpleasant thoughts, and part of you that is sensitive to thinking them. 

The human brain didn’t evolve to provide a pleasant platform to simulate conscious experience on. It evolved, first and foremost, as an organ to enhance biological fitness. Guilt, fear, jealousy, anger, sadness and many other negative emotions are wonderfully effective motivators. Not pleasant, but effective. It is your brains modus operandi to be effective; not ensure you enjoy your ride inside it. 

Given the above, there are better and worse ways of managing your own mental health, as well as supporting others with their own. In general, there are two principles that tend to guide practice in the area that I work. These are: 1) scaffolding, and 2) capacity building. 

“Scaffolding” refers to the structure imbedded in someone’s life and that helps to establish routine and support. This routine is the used for the purpose of developing behavioural consistency (as a platform for capacity building) but also so that wellness can be tracked more accurately — by both the individual and their formal and informal supports. Once this structure is in place, capacity can be built. 

Often, we humans, are our own undoing in this regard, though. We chase novelty and run away from monotony at almost all opportunities. While an appropriate balance is surely needed, one should be wary of a lack of routine. The operating costs of a complex system are much steeper than one that is highly organised. It is also much easier to detect degradations in an organised system, as well as to safely introduce improvements without exaggerated risk of everything coming crashing down. The division between complexity and chaos is fickle.

“Capacity building” is the development of knowledge and skills that are meaningful and useful to an individual. This is, essentially, the endeavour to puts one’s destiny in one’s own hands. This can be achieved by either addressing weaknesses or developing new abilities entirely. Very, very few things can ameliorate the unpleasantness of a human mind like improving yourself can. Importantly, this is something that appears to be true — in my limited experience, at least — in both clinical and general populations. 

Therefore, as I see it, you have two general options.

One is to tell the inner-critic to be nicer to you. However, wisened mental health thinking suggests that it isn’t as simple as this. Notoriously, telling someone to “cheer up” doesn’t work, so it’s hard to imagine why telling them to be nicer to themselves is any more effective.

The other alternative is to become something that is harder to criticise. Though, as I said, the critic will alway remain; it’s a fairly stable feature of a human mind. This indicates that the latter strategy might be a better option. How often has one convinced a critic to become a supporter? One is likely better served by making the critic look like a fool — should they choose to criticise.

Remember: Popular ideas, typically, become popular because they are nice to think; not because they are useful or true.

I am fascinated by the power of knowledge; in particular, how through its implementation we can build a better life for ourselves and others. Most specifically, I am interested in ideas related to rationality and morality. I believe we can all be benefited by having a concern for both probability as well as people. As a student, I am studying Artificial Intelligence. As a professional, I work in mental health case management. When I am not doing one of these things, I am very likely writing for my blog, recording an episode for the "PhilosophyAu" podcast, hanging out with my nan, reading a book or, occasionally, attending a rave. A previous version of myself obtained a bachelors and a masters degree in sport science and was the Manager of Educational Services for a leading health and fitness company.

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