Joe sat in the waiting room with a newspaper, but he couldn’t have told you what he was reading. Working hard at the appearance of being relaxed, he wondered for the 10th time in the hour whether he really needed to be here. Fatigue, heart palpitations, muscle soreness, headaches, difficulty concentrating, low grade nausea and sleep disturbance had led to this appointment.
But Joe wasn’t in a GP’s practice. That would have been easy. He was in a Psychologist’s office for a plan to manage an anxiety disorder.
Joe was tired of feeling tired, and frustrated with feeling frustrated. Work stress merged into irritability with the kids. He checked his phone relentlessly in meetings, elevators and watching TV. He worked later and went in earlier because being at his desk was the only way to pacify the anxiety. In his heart he knew he was far from productive. Whatever crossed his mind became a focal point, somewhat like a tail wagging a dog.
As a practicing Psychologist I ask myself a lot why it is still considered so hard for people to seek support or speak up about mental health challenges. Why, for all the research and awareness and progressions we have made in medicine that mental health still carries with it a sense of weakness, or unease, and that traversing the topic for many people is akin to walking across thin ice in stilettos? If you are reading this you will say you don’t feel that way about mental health, but I’m not sure it is talked about enough that anyone suffering will ever risk that to find out.
Medicine and attention to disease prevention/early intervention has improved life expectancy by 50% in a manner of decades. We know the importance of vaccinations, the impact of smoking and that newborns shouldn’t be placed on their stomachs to sleep. But while life expectancy has increased, life satisfaction has decreased. Almost as fast as we have new technology to connect, people have never reported higher levels of isolation and loneliness.
Over 20% of Australians in any given year now experience a mental health disorder; with 45% of us across the lifetime. And sadly, in spite of brilliant advances in medical technology curing diseases, the leading cause of death in 15-44 year olds is actually suicide. We concentrate on what is in front of instead of what is important to us, we overeat to the point of illness, and relationships are failing at record rates. What would quality of life, life satisfaction and relationships be like if we practiced good psychological health practices?
The thing is, we wouldn’t walk around with a wound that was deteriorating or back pain that impacted on sleep or quality of life without getting them checked or feeling ashamed or self-conscious. To the contrary we’d have conversations with complete strangers about it. (“How’s your back? Have you tried water running? I hear pilates can help that”).
When my children are adults I hope they will look back and be shocked that in our time we did so much to progress technology, and so little to progress psychological health. Psychology or mental health is not about what is wrong with people. Psychology is not about making sad people less sad or worried people less worrisome. It is about better quality relationships, concentration, attention, life satisfaction and happiness. And good mental health goes a long way to impacting on our physical health.
The exciting part is that mental health disorders in the overwhelming majority are measurable, treatable, inexpensive, and often preventable if managed early. As a treating Psychologist that is what gets a little heart breaking at times – hearing how long some of our clients have done the equivalent of the New York Marathon with no shoes on.
The prognosis for Joe is good. Actually, it is excellent, but it didn’t need to be so hard. It’s Mental Health Week. Let’s start making it easier by talking about your own, or asking about others’ psychological health as if it were asthma, diabetes or an ear infection. A good conversation could be the very start of changing everything.
Peta Slocombe is a Psychologist, consultant, and author and is Managing Director of Vital Conversations