It seems that discussions about mental ill-health are so much more within the public eye than ever before. Wherever you turn, something about the importance of accepting and empathising with those who struggle with their mental health can be found just by looking under the nearest rock. The Royal Family are talking about it, Russel Brand is writing about it, Demi Lovato is opening interviews with it… Despite this, there continues to be a commonly held view that those who experience difficulties in mental health or who access psychological therapy are different from the rest of us and have something innately ‘wrong’ with them. How accurate is this perception? Do those who struggle with these difficulties have a genetic predisposition to mental health difficulties? Or are we all equally at risk of interpreting our circumstances in a way that causes us to develop mental ill-health?
Now seems a good time to explore this question given the significant rise in those with mental health difficulties presenting to therapeutic and health services since the start of the pandemic. It’s very possible that this increase has been heavily influenced by the public promotion and normalisation of therapy that Covid has brought with it, but it seems that the more realistic message is that Covid has presented the world with a common circumstance that has challenged us all and demonstrated that we may all be more vulnerable in our mental health status than we would like to believe.
The charity, MIND have reported the results of their research that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England. This figure is based on those who have presented to services for support and intervention. Given the continued, albeit constantly reducing, stigma and secrecy associated with mental ill-health, it is highly likely that this figure could more than double if we were to consider those who don’t identify their difficulties as a mental health condition, or who hide it from sight and will not access supportive services.
Whilst there is evidence to show there can be a genetic link for some mental health conditions, the prevailing theme is that, despite having a family history of mental health, this does not necessarily predict yours; it also doesn’t mean that mental health difficulties are inherited biologically; they may equally be passed through generations by environmental means. We must always take into account those around us, our living conditions and life events in combination when considering our risk of developing these difficulties. One challenge of holding the view that you don’t have ‘the mental illness gene’ is that you are then also less likely to seek help and may not recognise or have an awareness of needing professional support. It is important to hold in mind we are one version of ourselves currently based on our history, genetic make-up and current social pressures; any one of these variables will contribute to our mental health status at any time in our lives.
Like the medical model that allocates labels to explain what might be wrong with us physically, mental health is often viewed through a diagnostic lens and individuals are commonly given labels that identify the condition they have. This is a controversial area and there are many differing perceptions about whether this is helpful or not. Some people benefit from associating themselves with one diagnostic concept while others prefer to develop a unique understanding of themselves that considers their individuality in determining why they may be struggling as they are. One of the core difficulties with a diagnostic model in this sense is that it does contribute to the stigma linked with mental ill-health as it separates them from everyone else who are seen as without mental health, which incidentally we all have. We all have our own ‘mental health’ just as we have physical health and as such, we are all vulnerable to developing mental health difficulties as we are physical health difficulties. As with preventing physical ill-health, those of us who are fitter and stronger and work harder at maintaining our mental health, do reduce their risk of developing mental health difficulties.
What are some of the commonly held misconceptions?
1. “Therapy is for crazy people”.
Everyone experiences common life stressors such as house moves, relationship ends, bereavement and change in employment which can increase feelings of anxiety. Therapy can help with these issues just as much as it can for those with severe and enduring mental health needs.
2. It is all about exploring your childhood.
Whilst an important part of therapy can be acknowledging past experiences and how this may have influenced our perception of ourselves and others, another equally important part of therapy is thinking about the present and any changes that can be made to improve it. It also largely depends what type of therapy you take part in as some therapies focus much more on the present than others.
3. Therapy is just a chat with a kind stranger… it’s ‘fluffy’.
It can take a lot of strength and compassion for yourself to fully engage with therapy and cultivate change. It is not just thinking positively and receiving kindness. While a therapist is there to empathise with you, they are also there to challenge you and support you to move towards instigating change that will bring about improvements in your quality of life; this may even require them to be confrontational sometimes!
By recognising the above and setting aside any therapy stereotypes, we open up opportunities to explore who we are and how we can enhance our well-being. This can develop a meaningful insight into life, understanding our behaviours, thoughts and feelings and insight into challenges and difficulties in our lives. You do not need ‘predisposed mental health difficulties’ to gain these benefits! As part of therapy, we can explore new coping mechanisms, this is not to say you need to be coping poorly but recognising there may be other more adaptive and life-enrichening ways of coping too. When we do not explore these opportunities, we allow potential for difficulties in our lives and mental ill-health manifest.
With a wide range of therapeutic interventions available within our team at Serendipity, there is most likely to be a transformational relationship awaiting you if you open your mind to it. We know we should make efforts towards improving our physical health, but can we say the same for the way we think about our mental health? Therapy can help to instil hope and enhance quality of life. Great opportunities open up from having a safe space to talk and explore who we are and the lives we wish to lead.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that difficulties in our mental health are normal and understandable responses to what is happening in our lives. So, when we ask is mental health predisposed or are we all at risk of struggling, the answer is very much, yes, we are all at risk.