GLWS at the WGS: Part three
Today we’re bringing you our notes from one of the ‘distinguished panel’ of moderated sessions at the WGS. Arianna Huffington, Dr Oz and Professor David Clark spoke about how mental health is already upon us as the next global epidemic and offered nine ‘micro-steps’ to maintain good mental health, which we can reveal here on the GLWS blog.
Throughout the year, you’ll see more highlights from the WGS as part of Wellbeing Insights as we put them together and link the learnings to our GLWS principles.
Notes from global figures Arianna Huffington, Dr Oz and Professor David Clark on ‘Mental health is the next global epidemic’
Many of us are oblivious to living our lives in a perpetual state of ‘fight or flight’ mode. But it’s certainly having an effect on our stress and anxiety levels.
In depressed and anxious brains, and in pre-anxious and pre-depressed brains, there is a clear link with excessive or sustained negative stress. And as we face a rising global mental health crisis, it has become increasingly essential to address mental illness as a grave concern.
The World Health Organisation estimates 450 million people experience mental health issues. To call this the next epidemic is not alarmist – it’s reality, and a reality that many know is practically upon us. The speakers discussed the causes and implications of this epidemic from their diverse perspectives and put forward some proposals for ways to curb its rapid spread.
The causes & implications of poor mental health
Sleep & stress
Arianna Huffington’s personal story of burnout and collapse in 2007 two years into building Huffington Post centred on her delusional belief that ‘sleep is optional’.
Getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night has led to an incredible crisis in mental ill-health, a rise in the experience of distress and detachment, a decrease in the empathy we feel and growing levels of non-communicable disease – obesity, heart problems, diabetes and mental ill-health.
We are so used to running on empty that we have stopped remembering what it feels like to be fully recharged and present in our life, and we don’t realise our performance is undermined and our sense of perspective warped.
We are unduly stressed, anxious and depressed at unprecedented levels.
Dr Oz talked about major stress taking six years off our life expectancy, in part due to the way stress sometimes directly affects our body in negative ways, and in part because stress often drives harmful behavioural habits.
In the USA, there is data showing a clear link between the lack of sleep, increased drug taking and unprecedented opiate addictions. We’re seeing this trend in Australia, too.
Loneliness is at epidemic proportions. Our companionship needs – family first, having the right tribe around us and someone close to us – are hard to make happen, and mental health issues such as depression often arise when people are deprived of these relationship needs.
(It’s important to remember that depression can emerge because you have a chemical imbalance independent of your circumstances or, as is implied here, because you have a terrible situation you are living with.)
How much of an impact does social media have on anxiety and depression? Is it a destructive force?
The largest increases in anxiety and depression are between 16-25 years, so it’s likely to be significant – but social media is not the cause or solution on its own. According to the speakers, we need to focus on the ‘inner reality’ and give people the tools they need to become more resilient and balanced in these turbulent, overwhelming times.
Social media may be particularly negative because we are comparing our messy reality with curated perfection. We should consider transitioning from a state of FOMO to JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) rather than constantly comparing what we see on other peoples’ outsides with our insides.
People believe the world is not as good as it used to be, but objectively that’s not true. It’s a feeling. How can we think our world is not a better world? Instead of trying to change our environments, we need to reboot what we expect from our lives.
If this is a topic that’s resonating for you, check out these links which go into more detail:
Why technologists are limiting their families’ screen time (Sydney Morning Herald, Mar 2019)
The Welfare Effects of Social Media report (Stanford, Jan 2019)
If ever you wanted to see the evidence as to why we should restrict Wi-Fi access, there’s all the data you need!
Curbing the rise of mental ill-health
Prof. Clark explained that because of the economic cost of depression (it lowers GDP in the UK by 5 points), the mental health epidemic has become a more than worthwhile focus for the UK Government and has attracted significant investment.
Through such funding becoming available, Professor Clark has been able to design and run extraordinary research and controlled experiments in the real world (not on rats but on humans ?).
With an impressive sample size of 560,000 people who were treated with therapy versus medication within one year, 7 in 10 people showed a substantial and significant improvement in their mental health symptoms, and 5 in 10 showed a full recovery from anxiety and depression. This is a vastly superior result from those achieved through pharmaceuticals. Even where depression is occurring autonomously from circumstances in our external world, therapeutic support for the ‘inner world’ is recommended more than medication.
Clearly, there are are things we can do to curb mental ill-health on both a curative and preventative basis. We know how to alleviate human suffering and to build immunity (or at least resistance) to susceptibility to mental ill-health, and through such interventions we have the know-how to increase happiness and wellbeing at scale across the world. As an added bonus, therapy has also been shown to significantly lower the social and economic cost and increase productivity.
However, here’s the question:
If we know psychological therapies work effectively for the most common mental health and wellbeing problems, and we know most people prefer therapy to long-term medication – why are we still facing this social and health epidemic?
The problem is quite simply one of supply and distribution: individuals aren’t getting enough support. It’s difficult to access (referrals, fragmented, not well understood, stigmatised) and is grossly understocked.
The solution is to give the right evidence-based support with an adequate ‘dose’ at the right time. If this was to happen at scale, we would see a significant reduction in mental ill-health (curative interventions) and a significant increase in wellbeing and happiness (preventative interventions).
Off the back of his ground-breaking experimental program, Prof. Clark has now received an extension to funding – the UK government has now committed to doubling the scale of its therapeutic support program.
Arianna Huffington’s observation is that employers and businesses can and should do more to ease the access to appropriate support – she urges us to consider multiple points of intervention and not to take a narrow view of this as being a health sector challenge. Inroads through business may be the easiest entry point as leaders can demonstrate to their CFO and head of HR that proactive wellbeing interventions will yield an impressive return on both direct and hidden costs.
9 micro steps to maintain good mental health
People are working very hard just to keep up – taking care of oneself in an increasingly turbulent outer world is essential.
- Mindfulness practice daily.
- Set boundaries: pick a time that you declare the end of your working day, an artificial end to allow for adequate rest and recovery.
- Mark the end of the day by taking the phone and turning it off and charging it outside of the bedroom.
- Write important stuff down – you will achieve a 50% increase in recall, up from a baseline of 2%.
- When you wake up in the morning, take 1 minute to remember what you are grateful for and set your intention for the day – what you want out of your day and what makes you happy.
- Exercise vigorously for 6 minutes a day – people who live the longest all have daily rigorous activity. Exercise is increasingly being prescribed as a key part of psychological therapy.
- Hang out with the right tribe. When you decide to go on a wellbeing journey with someone else, you are significantly more likely to be successful.
- Lower your blood pressure – it’s the number one cause of aging that can be easily changed. High blood pressure takes 12 years off your chronological age. And now that you know that, wouldn’t you want to do something about it?!
- Eat the right food for your body and add 13 years back to life expectancy; exercising well will add 12 years.
The bottom line
We are not yet seeing the impact of the increased spend on wellness in terms of reversing trends, and that’s because people need trusted sources of information, giving them the truth and the tools and support to know what’s really going to make the difference.
If you were a teenager in the 80s (as we were), you are likely to hold a firm belief that high fat is bad. We were reared on the mistaken, wrong information that sugar and high carb diets were harmless as long as the fat content was low.
We spend a lot of time and money on treating health issues but less on preventing them. Now, people are seeking prevention of disease. But the information needs to be presented in the right way.
One of the other reasons the return on wellbeing spend has not yet been optimised is because generally, organisations and practitioners are not yet addressing specific wellbeing needs in a sufficiently targeted manner. It’s vital to remember ‘accurate diagnosis should precede intervention’ and this is true of wellbeing. (It’s one of the key reasons behind GLWS success – we focus on identifying the unique wellbeing profile of individuals, thus engaging people in something that is tailored and feels relevant.)
In health and wellbeing, the other learning is that if it’s perceived as being homework people won’t do it. Don’t tell them to eat well and exercise but instead, use nudge theory and make it aspirational. When healthy becomes the new skinny, it’s ‘sexy’. When sleep and downtime become fashionable, we will be successful.
Professor Clark summed up by saying, “We have treatments that work very well but they’re just not implemented – for a variety of reasons. We have the solutions, but they’re just not implemented.”
So let us go forth and implement!
Audrey (& Karen)
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