Simon W Blog

Managing mental health: why we’re more resilient than we think 

22/11/2017

In a guest blog for Place2Be, Professor Sir Simon Wessely explores the ways in which we can manage our own mental health and encourage people to look out for each other before seeking professional support.

Ordinary people go about their lives pretty well most of the time. Most of us have serious life events once every four years and if that alone was enough to make us mentally ill, we would all be mentally ill all of the time, but we aren’t. And yet despite that we continue to underestimate the essential resilience of ordinary people.

During the Blitz, there were only a couple of short-lived collapses of morale. The levels of - what they called back then - ‘neurosis’ didn’t go up and the suicide rate even declined. Similarly, a majority of people managed the worry caused by the 2005 London bombings in their own ways. Less than 2% felt they needed professional attention. Most dealt with their concerns by drawing on their own social networks - talking to family, friends, colleagues etc. As the Heads Together campaign - spearheaded by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry - has established, it is indeed ‘ok to say’.

In many cases, rather than immediately turning to professionals we can encourage people to find their own support in simple ways – as we showed happened after the 2005 London Bombs. And then if talking to the people you trust isn’t enough, positive parenting programmes, mental health first aid for teachers, Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) in the military and peer mentoring for young people can genuinely help us to look out for each other and build our resilience. It is those who can’t rely on social networks - the lonely, isolated, those with pre-existing mental disorders - for whom professional support can be most invaluable.

It has become customary to talk about how modern society drains our batteries so much quicker than before, how everyone is constantly at the mercy of the news and how our children cannot cope with the new pressures of education. But all that was said over 100 years ago too. Every generation always thinks it has it worse than its predecessors, especially when it comes to how we feel. Everyone has mental health and everyone is unhappy from time to time but not everyone has depression. The same goes for children and young people. John Tomsett, Head Teacher at Huntingdon School in York, recently wrote “the person specification for being a teenager includes ‘ability to be unhappy on a regular, frequent basis’”.

That remains true, but something has changed. For the first time in the 50 years since we started monitoring these things properly in big community studies, there has been a change in the true rates of mental disorders in the community. These are the real rates, not the rates of those presenting, which have been steadily increasing for some time. It is a very specific change. An increase in anxiety and depression in young women aged 16 to 24. Accompanying this has also been a worrying rise in deliberate self-harm. We don’t yet have the data for 13-16 years olds - that will come next year - but it would be a surprise if those have also not increased. What is the cause? Well, we have a long list of plausible villains, ranging from social media, bullying, debt, changing parenting styles, exam pressures, loneliness and so on and so forth, but frankly we don’t really know for sure, which means we must be careful at jumping to conclusions unless and until we have clearer evidence as to what really has changed.

But still, most people, and children are people, are rather more resilient than we think and maintain their mental health by time-honoured solutions - talking to people they want to in their own social networks and a time and a place of their choosing. Equally, when the teachers who support them are well-led, well-trained, well-supported and have good morale and job satisfaction, they can manage the stress of their role and maintain their mental health too.

We should do everything we can to help people resolve their problems by mobilising their own social resources and enhancing the support that is naturally available. Only when that fails do we finally move to more formal interventions.

This blog is based on Professor Sir Simon Wessely’s speech at Place2Be’s School Leaders Forum.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely is Regius Chair of Psychiatry at King’s College London and President of the Royal Society of Medicine

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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