Working on Mental Health

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Okay, it’s time to do another survey.

“Hands up – who has a mind?” Hmmm, I thought so – everyone believes that they have a mind. “Okay, and now who among you has ever received any guidance or orientation or training in what it means to have a mind and how to work with it?”

When I ask a group this question there’s often a unanimous sense that we have never ever been taught or shown what having a mind is all about or how to work with our mind. These questions bring up a realization that there’s been this little bitty oversight by our culture – school offers sex-ed but no mind-ed. Actually, there seems to be a cultural taboo against knowing our feelings and against working on our mental health.

So, do you think it would make a difference? Do we need to? Do we want to?

On the latter question, it would seem that we’re awash in self-help books, shows and health gurus. These might be cultural indicators that there exists some prevalent condition and that people are hungry for guidance.

We also seem to be flush with psychopharmaceuticals that promise to do the job of adjusting our minds for us. Indeed, pharmaco-genetics is an emerging area of research attempting to develop antidepressants that are tailor-made to suit individual genetic variations.

But what if you prefer to DIY? Wouldn’t it be great to drop in to Mind Depot where they say, “You can do it, we can help?”

Given that mind and mental health embrace the working and content of our emotions, thoughts, perceptions, memory, behaviour and physical reactions, it’s a broad area that doesn’t lend itself to quick, fast-food remedy: “Ya, I’ll have a Big Insight, hold the Irony, a side of Wisdom and some Contentment, please.”

Our society doesn’t have a lot of difficulty with the idea, if not the practice, that getting into better physical condition takes work and dedication and time. Four weeks of effort is just a beginning. We accept the truism that a neglected body is more likely to be an unhealthier body, vulnerable to break down. The development of skills also entails repetitive work. To become adept at guitar or you name it, we have to arrange to practice, working patiently as little gains are earned.

There’s good reason to suggest that mental health is essentially similar. Neuroscience is effectively showing us that repeating some healthy (or unhealthy) activity over and over changes the brain tissue that mediates that activity. Want to like yourself better? Want to manage your anger or your depressive thinking?

Research shows that our abilities to hold and regulate emotion, heal trauma, and to pay attention are complexly rooted in a neurobiology that can be strengthened like a bicep. It might be that wisdom, intuition and compassion are skills that can be strengthened.

What might it be like to exercise the capacities of mind to see your mind and, really, to see your life, just as it is? What might it be like to learn to respect and listen to your emotion, rather than to avoid it?

Improving mental and physical health takes intention, practice and dedication. And mental health training takes courage, the emotional equivalent of resistance training, pushing against our massive tendency to avoid discomfort. Mental health won’t magically improve. Our relationships take work, our parenting takes work, loving ourselves takes work. If ‘being a good person’ is living in a way that reflects your deepest values, your potentials, your compassion, your heart, then that’s the work.