Mental Health Day 2018: 'What's society got to do with it?'

I think it’s absolutely shocking that In 2018, on World Mental Health day, we are having to ask questions about the social and societal nature of our mental health and that organisations and movements that explore this and work with this ideology, are seen as progressive. I am always shocked when I go to mental health events at how dominant this medical narrative is, how strongly it shapes our conversations about our inner worlds and how easy it is for us to believe this narrative - that our very human suffering is the result of a biological or genetic flaw within us, rather than being responses to the painful and challenging things that life throws at us all. I wish it wasn’t progressive to challenge a psychiatric system that has been the most hotly debated medical system in history.  

But it is and so I guess what is most useful for you today is to tell the story that is often not heard, specifically from the younger generation. The main thing that seems to be unrecognised in conversations about younger people’s mental health is that they are really switched on and the conversations they are having about mental health, reach out to all corners of our society. Because to them, it is obvious that our mental health is linked to the world in which we live and the conditions and environments in which we find ourselves. Our families, our friendships groups, our jobs, our government and how all of these things either impair and disrupt or facilitate our internal growth. The society that we live in promotes low self esteem and constant roadblocks to a sense of value and meaning. 

There is so much I wish I could express about the insights that I have gained from this work. To chose one, I wanted to share an insight that I felt was really important in terms of how we view young people’s mental health, something really interesting happened a couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to a young girl called Ellie from Archer Academy and her idea for a project to improve wellbeing in schools was to design ‘non school like school time’. 

Ellie requesting the need for spaces to fail and creative spaces to explore your identity beyond a goal oriented, outcomes focused environment are sensible and therapeutic recommendations, from a 14 year old. You have to remember that exam outcomes being projected as a measure of our self worth, exist throughout our whole development, and this is the crux of it. Our system, out societal system, at all levels , measures our self worth based on what we achieve academically. This would be fine, if alongside this system was an equal system that prioritised our unique and personal identities and supported our growth as people who were not always on the hamster wheel. 

The systems we are channeled through repress our ability to express those parts of ourselves that we want to be seen, because individuality and personal expression are not valued in these systems. The need for good grades to survive in the word, the need to go to university, the fear of failing has superseded the human need to reflect on the journey itself and the struggles we face along the way. Our mental health system picks up the people who can’t do it anymore, it fills them with drugs and spits them back out, without listening to where the pain really came from. 

This is the double life we all live. The need to fit in and to be successful and the need to be seen for who we really are, our inner experiences really heard. The way that I see mental health problems, are the manifestations of this unresolved pain, of this repression of what we really need as humans to feel well. We need to feel a sense of meaning and purpose and for that we have to feel like a life of meaning and purpose is possible. Otherwise, of course, we are going to lose hope, we are going to feel negative and struggle to see the point of it all. 

But what the younger generation are saying, is that they recognise this, they recognise the need to open up spaces in our society where we can reflect on the struggles we experience and find the solutions to the struggles. I think it is absolutely inevitable that there are going to be rising levels of mental and emotional distress in a society that is becoming increasingly materialistic, individualistic and further and further away from a humble recognition of our true human needs, our fears and insecurities.  

We are a nation of ‘repressors’ and the reality of this is staring us in the face. We find it very hard to open up and share our pain or speak about our inner lives. So the projects that we are launching in schools allows these spaces, where young people can explore what they don’t normally get a chance to speak about and from that, design their own systems of support or education. What we forget by neglecting young people’s views is what we can learn from them. How their openness, their honesty and their great ideas can not just change the way we see the world but can help us create the change we want to see. 

Bea Herbert.

Bea Herbert