Work, Meaning, Office Space and Burnout

Office Space is one of my favorite movies. It really has a great way of depicting a lot of the bullshit experienced in office environments, has a great representation of burnout, and explores the psyche of work.

So, when we talk about work, what are we really talking about? Are we talking about a role that we have, which imbues a certain level of social status? Maybe we’re talking about our manual, physical, emotional, and psychic labor? Or about how we accrue resources to survive in our environment? Perhaps it’s when a force causes a displacement of the point of application, in the direction the force was moving? Or maybe it’s the change in potential energy? The acts of creation and destruction? Is it what we do to find meaning?

What do you do here

The word itself is an absolutely fascinating study in semantic processing, (the brain processing that occurs after we hear a word and encode its meaning) because when words have multiple definitions and values associated with them, they tend to store differently than other words. Hebb’s rule of learning is summarized as cell’s that fire together, wire together. Studies have supported this theory, demonstrating that when we hear the word run, our motor cortex gets activated and when we hear the word sun our visual processing get activated. So what happens when we hear the word work?

Hopefully for you it feels something like this:

dancing.gif

However a lot of people might stop and say…

disagree.gif

And that probably comes in if you’re working at a place that might be sending you towards burnout. Some of the biggest contributors to burnout include when our workload is too much and the resources are too low.

paper jam

And when our work conditions don’t align with our values.

what the hell is wrong with you people

Other factors included when the culture isn’t fair,

cake

When work gets stagnant, or feeling micromanaged or too constricted.

TPS reports

And in response to such stressful conditions (conflicting values, expending too much energy, injustice, stagnation, and restriction) symptoms like fatigue, exhaustion set in.

refusing to wake up.gif

Burnout also causes cynicism,

Shit No.gif

irritability

expressing myself

and social withdrawal.

stare at desk.gif

So when all of that sets in and we hear the word work, I wonder what if we’re hearing all of those things.

copy machine.gif

Or maybe it’s…

set place on fire.gif

When ideally when we hear about work we should want something that is so important as to include our values, creativity, identity, and resources to feel more like:

kickin back.gif andfishing.gif

Einstein said that as technology increased, and we could reduce the labor that all people need to do, that we should spend more time pursuing the arts. And as we approach an era where we have 10 billion humans, higher rates of productivity, and increased automation, I wonder how our relationship to work will change. I wonder how we will change our potential energy, into kinetic energy? And as I think about resources, values, money, energy, and labor, I hope I continue to create love, compassion, healing, growth, fulfillment and prosperity. I hope the same for you. Until next time, be well.

laughter.gif

How Stress Works

06e45ed58c827932ebbfc732fa67c3e1

What is stress?

Stress is the mindbody’s way of reacting to a challenge. Things that can cause stress are known as stressors. Stressors can be external and arise from the environment surrounding a person, such as the chronic rain of Portland. Stressors can also be internal and stem from thoughts, feelings or bodily functions. As a response to stressors the human body releases a series of hormones; the primary stress hormone is named cortisol.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System is a control system in the body that regulates heart rate, respiration, digestion, eyesight, urination and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When a person perceives a stressor, the mindbody responds by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System, an inflammatory reaction also known as the Fight-or-Flight response. The function of the Fight-or Flight is to aid a person in danger. Other common stress reactions include freezing, or fainting.

These reactions were useful tools for the survival of our ancestors when they lived in the wilderness. Amping up the body to fight, flee, or freeze is an excellent response to a hungry jungle cat. Unfortunately, while our civilization, culture, and stressors have evolved our mindbodies haven’t changed much over the millennia. The Sympathetic Nervous System’s response to stress isn’t necessarily the most helpful way to deal with the fact that taxes are due in 4 days and I need to gather my paperwork to get started.

When the stressor is no longer present or has been deemed to be dealt with by the mindbody, the Parasympathetic Nervous System activates. (If you’re trying to memorize these terms, remember when trying to slow down the mindbody activates its parachute, thus it’s called the Parasympathetic Nervous System.) When this system activates the mindbody relaxes and returns to homeostasis, its normal state of existence. This means when the mindbody is no longer experiencing stress the heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion starts back up, muscles relax, the mind becomes more flexible. This process is also known as the relaxation response.

Autonomic Nervous System

How do stress and cortisol affect the mindbody?

Cortisol stimulates glucogenesis in the mindbody. This means that cortisol helps the mindbody turn glycogen (the primary energy reserves in the body) into glucose (the primary fuel of the body). This mindbody creates this energy to deal with the stressor at hand. In response the mindbody increases blood flow, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating. The pupils dilate to take in extra light, the stomach stops digesting food, and the bladder relaxes preventing the need to urinate. Stress causes an increase in emotional reactivity, and restricts the focus of the mind to the stresses at hand; often this gets experienced as anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Intense stressors activate different part of the brain’s decision making processes and focuses on more reflex like reactions. Stress activates the creation of short-term emotional memories which are also known as flashbulb memories. Cortisol also can weaken the activity of the immune system, and slows down the process of wound healing.

These are great responses to imminent danger. These actions help make the mindbody stronger for a fight, and faster to flee. When we freeze, the restriction of focus can help us in making decisions without triggering that big jungle cat; when we faint the hope is that jungle cat leaves us alone because it thinks we’re already dead. Unfortunately, most modern problems don’t necessitate this kind of response.

Chronic stress, stress that never resolves can lead to physiological, mental, and spiritual problems. It can cause headaches (including migraines), muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomachs, urinary problems, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression, loss of interest in activities of pleasure, and a lack of motivation. Chronic stress may also cause gingivitis, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, aggression, rashes, hair loss, poor concentration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term exposure to cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory and spatial navigation. Common behavioral maladaptations to chronic stress include overeating, undereating, social withdrawal, overworking, sleep problems, and drug abuse.

Exposure to extreme stressors, for short periods of time can be harmful. Specific phobias (irrational persistent fears), Panic Disorder (persistent panic attacks), Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may occur as a result of exposure to intense levels of stress.

Is all stress bad?

Not at all. We need stress in order to motivate us to develop, grow and survive. Without stress you would never feel the need to acquire food, learn, or to adapt and cope with the everyday challenges our ever changing lives present. Stress that leads to a positive outcome is known as eustress, whereas stress that leads to negative outcomes is known as distress. A common example of eustress is the acquired knowledge a student gains by taking time to study and master material before a big exam. Properly dealing with stress leads to the experience of positive emotions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system allowing our bodies to relax. Thus it is important that we develop coping mechanisms to deal with stressors on a day-to-day basis.

What are specific coping mechanisms to deal with stress?

You use coping mechanisms to deal with stress every single day. Sometimes you use your problem solving skills to tackle a situation head-on. You might laugh, take a walk, read a book, create some art, or solve a puzzle. Exercise is a great way to alleviate the problems associated with stress. Sometimes people relieve stress by communicating with friends and family; research shows that social support helps ward off the negative effects of stress. Other ways to deal with stress include slowing down, relaxed breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Participating in meaningful activities is another great way to destress.  Different people are able to discover their own ways of relaxing and destressing.

How do I perceive stress?

There are many models that help explain how people interpret and deal with stress. One of the more popular models is known as Lazarus and Folkman’s Transactional Model of stress and coping. The first time a person is presented with a stimulus they undergo what is known as the primary appraisal. That means the individual takes in the stimulus and then decides if that individual stimulus is considered a stressor or if it is benign.

If it is a stressor the person then makes a secondary appraisal and decides how to deal with the stimulus. In this stage the person uses their coping mechanisms, both problem solving and emotional to deal with the stressor. If the person resolves the problem the stressor she experiences a positive emotion and we call the stressor eustress. If the person is not able to resolve the problem or comes to an unfavorable solution she may experience distress or reevaluates the stressor and we call the stressor distress.

Stress Model

The most important thing to remember from this model is that depending on the type of stress and our available coping mechanisms we will either interpret a stressor as eustress creating positive results, or we will interpret the stressor as distress and experience negative results.

 

Other factors that may play a role in stress.

Factors that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Music therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Laughing
  • Black Tea
  • Dancing
  • Exercise and Yoga
  • Meditation

Factors that have been shown to increase cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Caffeine
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Intense physical exercise (often to create the energy required)
  • Burnout
  • Trauma
  • Anorexia
  • Calorie Restriction
  • Continuous Consumption of Alcohol

ACT and Ants

ant

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it’s important to make committed actions based on your values. And just before writing this, I was thinking about the sacredness of life and how it’s so important to protect. But suddenly in the kitchen there was a swarm of ants, and I wanted nothing more than to commit a mass genocide via chemical warfare. That’s the tricky thing about values, they are flexible and they can change moment to moment.

And that’s a huge challenge right? The me of 30 seconds before seeing the swarm had a really different perspective on the sanctity of life than the version of me facing the swarm. ACT promotes ongoing non-judgmental contact with internal and external environmental events as they occur, so I can observe and describe the experience of homicidal rage towards ants –I experience muscle tension, it’s a hot energy, my mind blames of the ants for not having a nice apartment, and it presents images as borax- as ongoing internal events. Meanwhile my external environment I see thousands of ants working in dangerous conditions to try to bring food back to their family, a dirty counter top, and notice that it’s 70 degrees in the apartment. I didn’t notice the calming feeling of the air until I took that time to step back and ask myself “what’s happening in this moment?”

ACT also teaches that we should accept reality for what it is, without avoidance if we can. My rage towards the blasted ants won’t change the fact that there are no potted plants inside my home (even though my partner and I removed them because they kept building colonies inside them), it will only serve to feed my rage and take me away from present moment awareness. If I look at the facts, the fact is, there are a bunch of ants clinging to the free food left for them like good scavengers, and I am experiencing the desire that they would not be here.

ACT also teaches the concept of cognitive defusion, which is a fancy way of saying recognizing that my unhelpful thoughts are just thoughts, and not necessarily reality. My experience of such a thought in this moment comes from the weighty experience of judgment labeling myself a murderer and therefor a bad person for the act of ant-homicide I’m about to commit. But labeling myself as a potential murderer and a bad person doesn’t help me at all, it just serves to create my own set of psychic torture. I can be someone who both respects the sanctity of life in one moment, and wants to end life of a different species I’ve labeled as vermin the next moment. My mindbody has the ability to hold these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas or even behaviors – I am a healer after all – and I don’t need to label things in an all-or-nothing context.

Another tenant of ACT is recognizing the self as context. I’m the territorial creature who wants to protect my home. I’m also a moral thinking creature that wants to act in the best manner. I also exist in a culture where extermination of other creatures by chemical warfare is totally legit. I also recognize that though I exist in such a culture, I need not engage by my cultures rules given that historically most cultures tend to get some things wrong when it comes interpersonal or inter-species relations. When I take time to look at myself in different contexts, I can see why I can have seemingly conflicting motivations.

How I choose to respond to the hoard of ants in my home, whether via chemical warfare, cleaning, or some other method, is up to me. If I connect with the present moment, my values, see myself in the context I exist in, engage in cognitive defusion, accept reality for what it is and then make a committed action based on my awareness of those factors, I can make my best choice possible that is true to me and my values. These 6 factors are the basis of Acceptance Commitment Therapy and aid in developing cognitive flexibility, accepting the bad, good, and everything in between, and living by our own values.

Mental Health Stigma

pexels-photo.jpg

Mental Health Stigma (hereby referred to as stigma) are the negative attitudes, stereotypes, and beliefs that people hold towards folk living with mental health disorders. Stigma can be external (held towards other people) or internal (directed at oneself). Stigma motivates people to fear, reject, avoid and discriminate against people with mental health issues.

There are plenty of examples of stigma in the public domain. This happens when we blame mass murders by White men as mental illness, but other acts of killing as terrorism, war, or standing ground. It happens when we blame traumatized people who struggle with addiction for not having stronger willpower. The effects of stigma are likely present each day when 22 veterans kill themselves and do not receive the help they need.

Stigma happens behind closed doors too. It plays a role when a doctor dismisses a patient’s pain concerns as hysteria, only for her to discover after years of suffering that she actually has had fibromyalgia all along. It occurs when a teacher assumes a child with a learning disability is lazy or stupid instead of connecting them with the assistance they need. It’s present when a guy gets bullied for being a coward, because his panic reaction is so severe his nervous system causes him to freeze with tension. It’s the casual statement of some obscene act being labeled “cray cray.” There are widespread beliefs that people with mental health issues are more dangerous, have high rates of criminality, are lazy, and are more likely to be incompetent compared to people who do not.

Meanwhile the evidence demonstrates that mental health disorders are normal stress reactions and not indicative of character flaws. People with mental health disorders are more likely to be the victims of violence, not the perpetrators of it. And we know that mental health issues are incredibly common, about 25% of Americans will experience a mental health issue, that’s 3 times as common as asthma. Furthermore about 78-89% of adults polled believe mental health issues can be treated effectively. Would we be so callous as to blame the people with asthma for their breathing problems?

The problem is, is that there are some pretty significant effects of stigma. Stigma, when internalized, can be a major source of shame. Such shame can be so severe that it prevents people from seeking out and receiving the treatment they need. It also tends to increase the severity of anxiety, depressive, traumatic, and hallucinogenic symptoms. According to NAMI the average time between the onset of mental health symptoms and receiving professional intervention is an 8-10 year waiting period. Of the approximately 63 million adults who experience a mental health disorder this year, only 41% of them will seek treatment. That means over 37 million people, more than 10% of the entire U.S. population will struggle with a disorder that impairs functioning and causes distress without treatment. In a society of such great abundance and knowledge, that seems like a fact worth changing

Cultural and demographic groups in the U.S. react to stigma in a variety of different ways. For example, Hispanic and African Americans will seek out treatment for mental health issues at 50% of the rate of Caucasian Americans. Asian Americans tend to seek out mental healthcare even less, only 33% compared to Caucasian Americans. As a group, African Americans tend to look upon mental health treatment more favorably than other groups. As for gender differences, it’s been observed that on average males will wait longer, and develop more severe symptoms before they seek treatment compared to females. In one study, men cited embarrassment as the most common reason they did not seek out treatment, whereas women cited the cost. Some theorize our cultural norms and toxic masculinity are likely causes for such gender differences.

Not only does stigma affect how people approach (or rather avoid) getting treatment, it affects the way that communities treat people perceived to be having mental health issues. People are more likely to create social distance between themselves and persons with a mental disorder. This reaction results in a rather vicious cycle of events. The people experiencing mental health disorders become isolated, which in itself exacerbates the disorder making the symptoms more severe. As a result there is a desire by the community to create more social distance and there tends to be a void with regards to ensuring suffering people get sufficient human contact and dignity. Research shows that persons with mental health disorders that live within inclusive and accepting cultures tend to have less severe symptoms and distress compared to people who live in other cultures. Other research demonstrates that Americans who have an education about, or a solid relationship with someone who has a mental health issue, stigma decreases significantly.

Stigma has a pretty significant impact on our health and economy as well. Problems with mental health are the number one cause of disability in the U.S. Additionally people who are living with severe mental health issues – roughly 1 in 10 Americans – are at increased risk for developing chronic health issues, and more likely to die of treatable physical conditions. Their life expectancy is 25 years shorter than the average Americans. Mental health problems cost the U.S. economy approximately $210 billion annually due to reduced productivity for people at work, and increased absenteeism. It’s pretty clear that mental health disorders, and the stigma associated with them cause a lot of illness, suffering, stress, and challenges with productivity.

The good news is, there is a lot we can do about stigma. Studies demonstrate that stigma significantly decreases when people receive education about mental health, or have experience with a friend or family member who experiences mental health symptoms. If we foster an attitude of openness, provide support for people experiencing mental health issues, embrace educating ourselves and each other about mental health we can normalize common mental health problems. We can be less stressed, healthier, more productive, and happier as a collective. That would be pretty awesome.

To review, mental health stigma are the negative attitudes and beliefs that people hold towards persons living with mental health issues. Despite the fact we know that mental health disorders are incredibly common, and normal stress reactions, stigma persists. Stigma exacerbates symptoms of mental health, takes a toll on the economy, causes significant distress, and tends to isolate people living with mental health disorders. We know that when people gain exposure to knowledge about mental health issues stigma declines. Will you help in the battle against stigma and create a healthier community?


Sources

Pacesepe, A.M & Cabassa Leopoldo J. (2013) Public stigma of mental illness in the united states; a systematic literature review. Administrative Policy Mental Health 40(5) doi: 10.1007/210488-012-0430-z

DHHS (1999) Mental Health: Culture, race, and ethnicity. A Report of the Surgeon General.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (2018) Mental Health by the Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

Abizu-Garcia, C. E., Alegria, M., Freeman, D., & Vera, M. (2001) Gender and health services use for a mental health problem. Social Science Medicine 53(7) 865-878

St. Michael’s Hospital (2014) Men, women use mental health services differently.

Doherty, D. T., & O’Doherty, Y. K., (2010) Gender and self-reproted mental health problems: predictors of help-seeking from a general practitioner. British Journal of Health Psychology 15(1) 213-228

Watters, E. (2010) The Globalization of the American Psyche Crazy Like Us. Free Press, New York, NY.

Words are Magic

pexels-photo-256546.jpegToday I’d like to explore our perceptions of reality, the power of language, and the ways that we use it. As a species, we come to know both our internal and external environments through our senses. This is paramount to our survival. We observe wide ranges of light, which helps us recognize familiar faces, identify distance, and color. We hear the invisible waves which create sound, and can feel a wide range of temperatures and objects. We can smell beautiful flowers and taste whether food is sweet or bitter. We have used our powers of observation to thrive on this planet we call home.

At the same time we know our senses are limited, we can only see, touch, taste, smell and hear a small fraction of the knowable universe. For instance we cannot see x-rays nor hear sounds of very low or high pitches. As such, we only perceive a fragment of reality. Making matters more complicated is each of us has our own unique perceptions and the experience of the redness of a fire-truck to me, may be a very different experience of the redness of a firetruck to you.

There are a variety of schools of thought when it comes to trying to understand the nature reality. Some think that there is an objective universe, but it is beyond our feeble abilities to ever truly comprehend it. Moderate realists believe that there is an objective reality, and given our feeble natures we can gather a close approximation of what it is. Critical realists believe there is a knowable universe and through scientific measurement we can truly come to know and understand it. In contrast, phenomenologists believe that there is no universe beyond the construct of the mind which is perceiving it. Regardless of which of these philosophies about reality is correct, the only experience of reality that we can have is our own.

Words are labels, they represent a construct of our reality. They can be written, spoken, or chattering inside our minds. As a species we use language to communicate with each other, spread ideas, help each other out or even to deceive one another. Words hold immense power. Right now I am using language to explore my perceptions about the constructs of reality and language with you.

Let us explore some ways in which words can influence our experience of reality. Ever feel those butterflies in your stomach, or that thumping in your chest before a big event? Perhaps it was before a sporting event, a test, an important conference, or a big date. If you label that energy as anxiety or nervousness, you’re more likely to have an apprehensive reaction and experience a decline in your performance. If you label that energy as excitement or enthusiasm, you are more likely to embrace the event and see an increase in performance. A small reframe can have significant effect on our experience of reality.

Ever have that worry that you can’t shake of, “what if I left the stove on?” It does not matter in the context of objective reality whether or not the stove is on, you are going to have a stress reaction if the words create a cause for concern. How about the experience of receiving an effusive complement or some unwarranted criticism? The words in themselves do not change the quality of your character, but they do ultimately have an effect on your experience and well-being.

Subtle changes in the words we use can have big implications about our experiences of reality. For example, I know many people struggle with their self-talk in describing acts that they want to accomplish as shoulds. “I should clean the apartment,” is a loaded phrase. Should -like supposed to, need, or ought – describes a moral imperative. If a should is not accomplished it often gets loaded with guilt or a sense of lacking if it is not accomplished. Because now the implications of the language “I should have cleaned the apartment” means I did not do what I was supposed to do. Whereas the sentence “I wanted to clean the apartment,” simply communicates an unmet desire without any wrongdoing implied.

From these examples it can be seen that words have significant influences over our experience of reality. It is important to be selective of the words we choose, because they will frame our individual experience, and the experience of those we communicate with. Furthermore, there is power in the existence of, or the creation of a word. It doesn’t matter whether you believe magic in itself exists or not. The fact that the word exists means that the idea breathes in the collective conscious. Likewise there is the same power in the elimination of a word. A knowable concept can be erased from our collective conscious. The language creates a perspective on reality for the group and for the individual. And is that power not in itself magic? How will you use your magical powers?

5 Signs you’re Experiencing Burnout

pexels-photo-133021.jpeg

Classic Burnout Symptoms

  1. You feel exhausted. Some people describe this as feeling worn out, depleted, or a loss of energy. Either way, your energy levels are not where they should be.
  2. Your attitude has shifted. If your attitude has become increasingly negative, cynical, or withdrawn this can be a huge sign of burnout. Sometimes this attitude shifts in client care, other times towards an organization, bosses, or with coworkers.
  3. You’re irritable. You seem to have a shorter fuse than you used to.
  4. You don’t feel productive. Either you feel your work is less valuable, you notice a decline in your productivity, or it just feels hard to cope with the day-to-day tasks on the job. The mundane becomes burdensome.
  5. Your coworkers are burnt out. Burnout, like other mental health phenomena, tends to be a cultural issue. When your coworkers are burnt out, your risk for burnout increases.

Causes of Burnout

Burnout has a variety of causes. The most common contributors to burnout include, too much workload with too few resources. Lack of control over your job tasks, or lack of ability to grow with your job. A lack of community or fairness in the workplace also contribute to burnout. Additionally if there is a values gap between you and the organization you work for there tends to be an increase in burnout.

Effects of Burnout

Burnout doesn’t just contribute to a poor work life, but poor health overall. People who experience burnout tend to demonstrate classic stress symptoms including chronic fatigue, headaches, GI issues, insomnia, and reduced immune functioning leading to an increase in illness. People who are experiencing burnout are also at greater risk for being hospitalized for cardiovascular disease. They also are more likely to develop mental health issues. Additionally people experiencing burnout are more likely to struggle in their relationships, and other areas of life.

Prevention and Treatment

You do have some control over your mindbody’s potential reactions to burnout. You can start by making sure you’re getting adequate self-care, this means making sure you’re getting adequate amounts of sleep, exercise, and eating healthy. Other means to manage burnout include practicing relaxation strategies, taking more breaks on the job, and exploring time-management alternatives. Additional strategies include getting social support from family, coworkers and friends, practicing mindfulness, and utilizing your own emotional coping skills. If you have the opportunity, take a vacation. We all need some time to change things up and recharge our batteries.

A lot of treatment for burnout can come at an organizational level as well. Changing work patterns, increasing community, trust, communication, support, creating more individual autonomy, and reducing the workload to resource ratio are all organizational ways to change burnout.

Mental Health Disorders are not Diseases

pexels-photo-209712.jpeg

Today we are going to explore the nature of mental health disorders. Mental health disorders are real, prevalent, and can impact anyone. 1 in 5 Americans will experience a diagnosable behavioral health condition this year. They cause emotional, physical, psychic, and relational suffering, and can severely impact life functioning. For the most part mental health disorders are not a disease. Rather, they are normal stress reactions, and expressions of variety within our species. The most common threads linking mental health disorders are stress, trauma, genetics, and access (or lack-there-of) to coping skills and resources.

A lot of times the normal emotions that get labeled as “negative” are often healthy responses to our environment. The sadness and fatigue we experience while we mourn the loss of a loved one, tell us to slow down, rest, and take time to understand our loss and make sense of our new environment. The energy of anxiety can propel us into problem-solving action like studying for that big test. The hypervigilance and wariness that trauma survivors experience help us keep on the lookout for danger, a key to survival while living in an unsafe and threatening environment. Many times it is when these healthy adaptations are present when they are no longer needed, or when they become maladaptive and impact the quality of our lives or impact our functioning, that we label them a mental health disorder.

It makes sense that most of us misconstrue and misunderstand mental health experiences. The majority of funding to provide treatment for mental wellness is paid for by health insurance here in the US. Insurance companies operate by the disease model of mental health. That is to say the way they classify mental health is that you either have a disease that is making you unhealthy, or you are healthy and no longer in need of treatment. Clinicians are expected to take notes that use language which indicates they are assessing and treating a disease. Such a model limits our view of mental health, having us merely focus on symptoms. Such a model does not provide credence to wellness factors like resilience, creativity, socializing, perspective taking, courage and other adaptive mental functions which contribute to health.

Another contributor to the misconception of mental health are the marketing and sales of psychopharmaceuticals. Major pharmaceutical companies medicalize normal human conditions such as sadness and worry. There is a multi-billion dollar market out there trying to convince people across the globe that experiencing human misery is a sickness that can be cured with medicine, and not only that, but long-term medicine. This isn’t to say that you should not pursue medicine. Internal and external stressors can cause our brain chemistry to get out of whack and cause needless suffering. Psychopharmaceuticals have helped millions cope, and if it helps you I am glad you’re taking them. What this is to suggest, is that misery is part of the human condition and the perspective of viewing mental health as a disease is problematic.

The problem is, is that the disease model doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Mental health disorders are culturally dependent, while diseases are not. Cancer, the flu, HIV and other diseases look the same, no matter where you are in the world. Anthropologists have done many studies and have found that mental health disorder symptoms change depending on the geo-cultural location. Depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, look different in the US than they do in Japan, Tanzania or India for example. Other studies have demonstrated that depending on the culture, traditional medicine folk are about equally effective in treating mental health disorders as mental health professionals.

Culture plays a significant role in our views of mental health as well. The DSM used to classify being gay as a disorder; today being gay, lesbian, pansexual, or bisexual are widely accepted (as they should be) as part of our normal sexual diversity. Emotional and cognitive responses like sexuality, height, and weight, also exist on a spectrum. Some of us are more emotionally sensitive than others, some of us are more expressive, some of us less. 20% of the population will experience a mental health issue this year. This suggests that these are pretty common stress responses. I have yet to work with a person who is experiencing a mental health issue who was living in a healthy environment, felt secure in their needs, had no experience of trauma, was well connected with their community, existed in healthy relationships, was engaging in meaningful activities, and in good health.

And that leads to another important question. Are mental health disorders unhealthy responses to healthy circumstances, or are they healthy responses to unhealthy circumstances. Nobody has ever proven that the collection of mental health disorders in the DSM or defined by the WHO are unhealthy responses to healthy circumstances. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that disorders PTSD, anxiety, and depression are normal stress responses to unhealthy circumstances like abuse, violence, neglect, or not being able to meet ones needs.

So what does this all mean for how we view mental health? Mental health disorders create suffering, have significant impacts on functioning, and are worthy of being treated as the serious and real conditions that they are. Perhaps this means we as a collective have to re-examine our definitions of wellness and how we as a society want to achieve our individual and collective wellness. Perhaps this means we need to re-examine and redefine how we provide resources to treat suffering. Maybe this means we should be a little more gentle and understanding with others and ourselves, knowing that if we’re not feeling well, behaving well, not thinking well, or not communicating well we are doing our best and probably responding to our internal and external environmental experiences. We are only human, after all.