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Mental illness is rightly a large and growing area of concern all over the world. The WHO estimate that clinical psychiatric disorder now constitutes over 10 percent of the total burden of disease worldwide and may rise to over 15 percent by the year 2020, and that globally as many people die of suicide as of road accidents (Harvard and WHO 1996).
The general principle of seeing the relationship between illness and health as a matter of degree, not kind, is highly useful in keeping matters in perspective. It reminds us that mental, emotional and social problems are common to us all, not to just deviant and/or sad minority, and that those who have problems will probably recover, and in any case are not defined by their problem, but almost certainly have a good deal that is positive in their lives. Experiencing emotional or cognitive problems is not necessarily a sign of ill health, not are mentally healthy people always happy. It is often highly appropriate to feel sad, angry or confused. Getting in touch with these feelings, understanding them, acting on them, resolving them and moving on is very much part of the process of learning and maturation.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is relationships. Good relationships are fundamental to our health and wellbeing and have been found to be as vital as eating well, exercising more and stopping smoking. Mounting pressures of work-life balance and the impact of bullying and unhealthy lifestyles are all issues affecting mental health; however, forging and maintaining positive relationships can benefit all of us.
We are seeing a breakdown in the communities and increase in urban alienation, with people increasingly living as lone individuals or small families. As the support from larger community is becoming less significant there is an increase in social fragmentation, young people no longer have the same number of adult role models to which to turn, and many are growing up in one parent families or all of their young lives in care of the authorities with no long-term parents to call their own.
The world in which young people are growing up today is very different from the world their parents inhabited when young, and they are facing the accelerated pace of social change that would have been unfamiliar, even to those who grew up a decade ago. Furthermore, young people are being forced to grow up much faster than did previous generations and no longer experience much of a protected childhood: through television and other social media they are increasingly exposed to adult ways of thinking, experience, problems and pressures in ways that they may well not be equipped to handle.
As a result of social fragmentation and the alienation of the generations, the peer group has become even more powerful as perhaps the only source of social support and reference for many young people. Those who do not readily fit in with the peer group may find themselves isolated or, worse, the focus of bullying.
Harvard Gardner’s work on ‘multiple intelligence’ has been highly persuasive and influential in understanding human intelligence. He has identified 7 separate intelligences – two of which he has classified as the ‘Personal Intelligences’. One of these, ‘Intra-personal intelligence’, he defines as the ability to understand oneself, to form an accurate model of oneself and use it to operate effectively in life. The other, ‘Interpersonal intelligence’, is the ability to understand others, how they work, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.
There is more or less total consensus both that the ability to make relationships is a central mental health competency and that warm personal relationships are an essential determinant of mental health. Practitioners in the field of mental health have come up with a list of personal attributes that constitute mental health: they included the ability to form attachments, to bond; to belong; to feel and show acceptance; to demonstrate good communication skills; to participate; to tolerate difference; to value others; and to feel a sense of mutual responsibility.
Our relationships with others are essential to any sense of well-being: the feeling of being loved and belonging is, as Abraham Maslow showed so clearly, one of our most basic needs, one on which many other needs, such as self-esteem and the ability to learn, are based.
It is vital that young people learn the competencies that help them make and keep warm human relationships as they determine their level of success and fulfillment in virtually all aspects of their lives, not only one’s sense of mental well-being, but also one’s ability to learn effectively.
It is in fact impossible fundamentally to change social structures without changing the hearts and minds of the individuals who inhabit them; unless we change attitudes and values, new arrangements will simply revert to recreating the conditions they were supposed to replace. Promoting social and individual change are two sides of the same coin.
It’s time to make your