Positively, Mental Health

positiveMy job title comes with a lot of assumptions.

I tell people that my day job involves designing and implementing mental health initiatives across two Universities in Ontario. While this may be a rather broad description, I notice that people tend to take pause when they learn what I do. This is often met with an unsettled or serious look, followed by a story or mention of how mental health has impacted their lives or the lives of those around them.

I can understand this response. People relate to “mental health”, often in very personal ways. It can evoke a range of deep seated stories, experiences and emotions, many of which touch on challenges related to mental illness and/or difficult times in one’s life. What I find most interesting is that this response tends to come about because “mental health” holds such negative connotations to people — it is something one must work through, manage, or “overcome”. When I sit at different tables, this is a common underlying sentiment.

I have come into a role that has arisen out of a very valid and real need to promote awareness, education and supports around mental health…however, there is a disproportionate focus on the relative burden of mental health and mental illness. There is also a heavy focus on using a certain type of evidence (no. of mental health diagnoses, overwhelmed services, etc.) that is suggestive of growing “problems” and “deficits” within the organization. From this problem oriented perspective, it can almost seem “easier” to justify the need for change.

While I can appreciate that mental health affects us all in different ways, I wish that the term evoked a more positive response in people. I now find myself actively creating a different conversation around mental health when I describe my role: that it encompasses positive and negative states of being, and that particularly within the context of art and design, mental health is often understood as fuelling imagination and creativity. I realize that my own conception and explanation of my role impacts the responses I evoke in others too, and this has made me more aware of how I communicate my work.

I stumbled upon this CIHI report on “Exploring positive mental health“. Here’s an overview of the five components of positive mental health they have identified that I think help us keep focus on a very positive and constructive understanding of mental health promotion:

  1.  The Ability to enjoy life: This refers to happiness, life satisfaction, subjective well being, partly a result of personality but can change due to life circumstances and environments;
  2. Dealing with life’s challenges: The ability to cope and grow with daily challenges by engaging or disengaging with issues we face;
  3. Emotional well being: Experiencing and regulating positive emotions in a manner that maximizes their benefits and minimizes negative aspects;
  4. Spiritual well being: Feeling connected to something larger than oneself (e.g., religion, values, principles, etc.) and having a sense of meaning in life; and
  5. Social connectedness and respect for culture, equity, social justice and personal dignity: Creating an environment where mental health can flourish.

I’d like to explore how these areas can help serve as a starting point for benchmarking “success” with mental health initiatives. Generally, the evidence base around mental health initiatives has not been well documented, particularly when it comes to these more “positive” metrics. At the very least, it’s a good reminder of how I can describe and convey my own goals.

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