The tricky balance for mental health

Mental health advocacy is important. Mental health is health. Mental health is not well enough understood by every day people. Stigmas still persist. And we can all try to be more empathetic more of the time.

I say all the above because what I’m about to say next might otherwise seem like I am in some ways undermining positive mental health efforts. Be assured, I am not.

There is a strong and pervasive narrative in the mental health advocacy movement that I find to be unhelpful and wrong.

I see it raise its head all the time. It recently confronted me directly in an NCT training sessions for new parents-in-waiting. The conversation went like this:

Me: I can imagine that the chronic lack of sleep could have impacts on your mental health.

Person: No, mental health is serious and pathologically ingrained. You can’t cure mental health problems with sleep.

I see this narrative all the time in mental health discussions. Not specifically about sleep, but about the fact that mental health is “ingrained and complex” and therefore cannot be helped by lifestyle changes.

The difficulty with this narrative is that there is some truth to it. But there is also some bullshit with it too.

So back to the conversation I was confronted with… Aside from the fact the person I was speaking to was making a bit of a strawman argument… I’d never said mental health problems could be cured by getting a good night’s sleep – just that sleep deprivation could make mental health worse. The reality is that what I said was absolutely true. It is backed up by a substantial amount of scientific evidence. Sleep deprivation can have a profoundly damaging impact on your mental health. As it happens, I know this from personal experience. But also, like, sleep deprivation can have such a profound impact that is literally used as a form of fucking torture.

The problem on the opposite side of the argument though is that I have also seen this kind of bullshit comment:

Person 1: I have X hugely dehabilitating mental health issue
Person 2: Have you tried going for a run? I always feel great when I go for a run

Clearly person 2 is just being an unfeeling ass with this comment, and this narrative should be shunned. But here is the thing… You might see the two following statements as contradictory, but they are both true:

  • A complex mental health problem cannot be cured by going for a run
  • Running and regular exercise in general does help improve mental health (and there is a lot of scientific evidence backing this up too)

What I see all the time in the mental health advocacy movement, is such an over-reaction to the first point, that people try to dismiss and underplay the second.

This is not good.

It also contradicts one of the key principles of the mental health movement: mental health is health. We know from our own bodies that our lifestyle can impact our health. Smokers on average get more cancer, heart disease and other health complications than non-smokers. We know people who do regular exercise and eat healthily on average live longer than people who do not. So why then would lifestyle not affect mental health? This is a rhetorical question because we know it does.

Positive mental health advocacy should promote exercise, healthy diets, ample sleep, and all the other lifestyle factors we know from reputable scientific research to benefit mental health. Can you imagine a cardiologist downplaying the importance of exercise and a healthy diet just on the basis that some heart problems are genetic? No – it would be a dereliction of duty.

We need to tread the path between the obviously unhelpful flippancy of suggesting serious mental health problems could be easily overcome by trivial actions, while also making sure that positive behaviours that we know do help improve mental health are properly communicated to the public.

It’s a bit of tricky balance to strike, but it’s important for the future of everyone’s collective mental health that we do.