Mental health: talking and listening

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Innovation might be doing things different to produce value, but there’s little value if we as a society are not able to embrace change because we’re hiding from mental illness either as individuals, organizations or communities. Without wellbeing and the space to acknowledge when we don’t have it any new product, idea or opportunity will be wasted, which is why mental health promotion is something that we all need to care about. 

Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day in Canada. Its (probably) the most visible national day of mental health promotion in the world. The reason has much to do with the sponsor, Bell Canada, who happens to be one of the country’s major providers of wireless telecommunications, Internet, and television services in addition to owning many entertainment outlets like cable channels, sports teams and radio stations. But this is not about Bell**, but the issue behind Let’s Talk Day: ending mental health stigma.

Interestingly perhaps, the line from the film and novel Fight Club that is most remembered is also the one that is quite fitting for the topic of mental health (particularly given the story):

First rule of Fight Club: Don’t talk about Fight Club.

Mental health stigma is a vexing social problem because it’s about an issue that is so incredibly common and yet receives so little attention in the public discourse.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada‘s aggregation of the data provide a useful jumping off point:

  • In any given year, one in five people in Canada experiences a mental health problem or illness bringing a cost to the economy of more than $50 billion;
  • Up to 70 per cent of adults with a mental health problem report having had one in childhood;
  • Mental health was the reason for nearly half of all disability-related claims by the Canadian public service in 2010, double what it was in 1990;
  • Mental health problems and illnesses account for over $6 billion in lost productivity costs due to absenteeism and presenteeism;
  • Among our First Nations, youth are 5-6 times more likely to die at their own hands than non-Aboriginal youth and for Inuit, the suicide rate is 11 times the national average;
  • Improving a child’s mental health from moderate to high has been estimated to save society more than $140,000 over their lifetime;

And this is just Canada. Consider what it might look like where you live.

It seems preposterous that, with numbers this high and an issue so prevalent that it is not commonly spoken of, yet that is the case. Mental illness is still the great ‘secret’ in society and yet our mental wellbeing is critical to our success on this planet.

Like with many vexing problems, the place for change to start is by listening.

Mind over matter: Dr. Paul Antrobus

Last year one of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever — or will ever — meet passed away. Dr. Paul Antrobus was the man who introduced to me psychology and was the wisest person I’ve ever known. Paul was not only among the greatest psychologists who’ve ever lived (I say with no exaggeration) by means of his depth of knowledge of the field and his ability to practice it across cultures, but he was also someone who could embody what mental health was all about.

In 2005 Paul fell off the roof of his cottage and was left as a paraplegic, requiring ventilation to breathe. For nearly anyone this would have been devastating to their very being, yet for Paul he managed to retain his humour, compassion and intellect as well as sharp wit and engagement and put it on display soon after his accident. He demonstrated to me the power of the mind and consciousness over the body both in the classroom and, after the accident, in his wheelchair.

Paul lived a good life, by design. He surrounded himself with family and friends, built a career where he was challenged and stimulated and provided enough basics for life, and gave back to his community and to hundreds of students whom he mentored and taught. Much of this was threatened with the accident, yet he continued on, illustrating how much potential we have for healing. He learned by listening to his life what he needed and when he needed it, tried things out, evaluated, tinkered and persisted. In essence: he was a designer.

Paul would also be the first to say that healing is a product of many things — biology (like genes), personality, family upbringing, access to resources (human, financial, spiritual, intellectual), and community systems of support. He made the most of all of these and, partly because of his access to resources as part of being a professor of psychology, was able to cultivate positive and strong mental health while helping others do the same. Although he might not have used the term ‘designer’, that’s exactly what he was. One of the reasons was that he discovered how to listen to his life and that of others.

And because he was able to listen to others he recognized that nearly everyone had the potential for great health, but that such potential was always couched within systems that worked for or against people. Of all of the things that contribute to healing, a healing community had the potential to allow people to overcome nearly any problem associated with the other factors. Yet, it is the community — and their attitudes toward health (and mental health in particular) — that requires the greatest amount of change.

That’s why talking and listening is so important. It creates community.

Listening to your life

Paul wrote a book and taught a course on listening to one’s life. Part of that approach is also being able to share what your life is teaching you and listening to what your body and the world is telling you. For something like Bell Let’s Talk Day, a space is created to share — Tweet, text, post — stories of suffering, hope, recovery, support, love and questioning about mental health without fear. It’s a single day and part of a corporate-led campaign, but the size and scope of it make it far safer and ‘normal’ on this day than on almost any day I know of.

A couple of years ago a colleague disclosed to the world that she had struggled with depression via Twitter on Bell Let’s Talk Day. She was so taken by the chance to share something that, on any other day, would seem to be ‘oversharing’ or inappropriate or worse, that she opened up and, thankfully, many others listened.

Let’s Talk Day is about designing the conversation around mental health by creating the space for it to take place and allowing ideas and issues to emerge. This is the kind emergent conditions that systems change designers seek to create and if you want to see it in action, follow #BellLetsTalk online or find your own space to talk wherever you are and to listen and to design for one of the greatest social challenges of our time.

This post is not about innovation, but rather the very foundation in which innovation and discovery rests: our mental health and wellbeing. For without those, innovation is nothing.

Today, listen to your life and that of others and consider what design considerations are necessary to promote positive mental health and the creative conditions to excel and innovate.

As for some tips in speaking out and listening in, consider these five things to promote mental health where you are today:

  • Language matters – pay attention to the words you use about mental illness.
  • Educate yourself – learn, know and talk more, understand the signs of distress and mental illness.
  • Be kind – small acts of kindness speak a lot.
  • Listen and ask – sometimes it’s best to just listen.
  • Talk about it – start a dialogue, break the silence

Thank you for listening.

** I have no affiliation with Bell or have any close friends or family who work for Bell (although they are my mobile phone provider, if that counts as a conflict of interest).

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