Last week was a gruelling news week in which the consequences of poor mental health were splashed across TV screens and newspaper headlines around the world. The week began with the massacre of 49 LGBT Americans in the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando and here in the UK the week ended with the brutal murder of a popular Member of the UK parliament Jo Cox on the street of a small Yorkshire town.
The narrative in Orlando is undoubtedly complex as there appear to be numerous contributory factors including the lack of effective gun control in the United States, religious extremism, homophobia (probably external and internalised) and online radicalisation, as well as evidence of mental instability. The murder of Jo Cox may also turn out to be directly related to the issue of mental health if early reports prove correct that the suspect has a history of mental health problems.
Both cases are extreme examples of the consequences of poor mental health and wellbeing, however mental health problems are common in modern society. Major depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide and in the UK it is estimated that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. The issue extends even further beyond clinically defined mental health problems to poor general mental wellbeing which it could be argued is endemic.
In recent decades we humans have been incredibly clever at inventing powerful technologies to help us connect, communicate and do things. We can access almost the entirety of all human knowledge ever created in a quick Google search. We can instant message anyone almost anywhere in the world and we can even shoot an HD video using our mobile phone then immediately edit it on the same device. In the workplace, the advent of email and powerful software packages facilitate the generation and sharing of vast amounts of data and information.
We think nothing of this technological wizardry, but we seem to brush over the negative impact of the technologies we have created on mental wellbeing. Where information overload leads to feelings of overwhelm how do we manage that? Where data sharing becomes a frustrating orgy of ineffective collaboration what do we do? And where the constant barrage of notifications, IMs, texts, messages and emails leads to depression and anxiety how do we switch off? In life we sacrifice our own wellbeing at the altar of busyness and in the workplace the wellbeing of employees is placed secondary to the holy grail of ever increased perceived “productivity”.
What is known about wellbeing is that it is founded on a sense of satisfaction based on the need for social connection and the need for social contribution. The major world religions and philosophies all attribute happiness and fulfilment in life to giving, helping and contributing to others. The evidence-based benefits of mindfulness meditation in reducing anxiety and depression are well documented along with significant benefits to mental wellbeing.
We also now know that humans feel psychological pain or social pain in the same way that we feel physical pain so the psychological effects of religious intolerance, homophobia, prejudice and social isolation are experienced in the brain in exactly the same way as pain from physical injury or torture. Psychological injuries such as internalised homophobia can fester for years destroying a person from the inside out, until that person snaps. Reports of a drunk and belligerent Omar Mateen being thrown out of the Pulse nightclub on a regular basis tend not to paint a picture of a radical Islamic terrorist quietly scouting a potential target. Instead they point to a deeply troubled man with poor mental health who was struggling with significant personal issues.
What the tragic events of last week bring into sharp focus is the need for greater awareness and understanding around mental health. If we continue on the ever faster, ever busier, ever more complex technological trajectory we are currently on without significantly improved understanding of mental health and wellbeing, things are only set to get worse. We’ve become so clever at doing that we’re not looking at how we are being. When we are too busy or unaware to notice that the mental health of our family, friends or colleagues is suffering what dangers can that expose society to?
Imagine what more we could learn about how our minds work if we applied the same inventiveness and enthusiasm we show for developing technology to exploring, understanding and improving our mental wellbeing. Instead of being overly focused on our external appearance and our technology it’s time for us to fall in love with our minds. Mental wellbeing is the big new frontier opening up ahead of us, it will be the next big step on the human journey because the wellbeing of society depends on the mental wellbeing of individuals.
This blog was first published on LinkedIn.