Mental health is a critical part of overall health and yet is so often described by the absence of illness. Ask people what mental health is and they’ll likely say something like ‘less anxiety or depression’. This is like describing physical health as the absence of a broken leg – it’s not wrong, but it’s not sufficient. And if we describe mental health as an absence of illness, it’s really hard to know what we can do to create more of it.
Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.World Health Organization
The World Health Organisation describes mental health as a state of well-being that enables a person to realise their full potential. This tells us that mental health is a fundamental building block of high performance – not something separate or somehow less important. How many organisations have their wellbeing programs separate from their performance initiatives? In my experience, the answer is ‘most’. By creating these artificial divides, we can neglect the importance of wellbeing in ensuring people are able to sustain their performance efforts over time. This is one of the reasons that sport and exercise psychologists in Australia are so effective at helping create high performance outcomes – they have the skills and training to integrate mental health and wellbeing work with performance improvement work, recognising that everyone needs a bit of everything from time to time.
So, how do we create more mental health? We know that there are many different ways that have been shown to help people increase their levels of wellbeing and these can be broadly grouped into two types of activity.
The first are ‘top down’ approaches where thinking and talking techniques are used to increase wellbeing. These might include talking with a psychologist but also include socialising with mates, learning new skills or even some types of mindfulness meditation. The second set of activities can be called ‘bottom up’ approaches as they work through the body to change the mind. These include exercise, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, music and other forms of play. You may also recognise that some activities are a combination of top down and bottom up – mindfulness practise that utilises breathing as a way of contacting the present moment non-judgementally is one example.
So which approach is best for me? The answer to this question is likely to be ‘the one that you enjoy doing the most’. The most important point is that we realise that investing time in our mental health is an essential foundation ingredient for flourishing in our lives and not something that we should put off because of work priorities that we think are more urgent.
Richard Fryer is a registered psychologist with a Masters degree in sport and exercise psychology and owner of Performance Mindsets Consulting. He works with a range of clients in the corporate sector and elite sport to help people realise their performance potential.