A new book, The Significance Delusion by Gillian Bridge, suggests that our contemporary and ever growing problems with mental health are partly down to our own attitudes and behaviour (among other things, our silence). Here are a few more key issues Bridge recommends you be aware of if you're worried about yourself or someone else's mental health:
Use of psychoactive substances: Less nicotine is being used nowadays, but it’s still worth knowing that giving up cigarettes is more beneficial in tackling depression than taking anti-depressants (and a recent study from Norway showed that male sperm cells are damaged by nicotine, with the result that children whose dads smoked before they were even conceived, were three times more likely to develop asthma – not good for anyone’s well-being). Alcohol is a depressant in itself, and most other lifestyle drugs also have negative long term effects on mental health – whatever the short term pleasure of using these substances.
Spending too long online and on social media: This creates an inward focus (even having lots of Facebook ‘friends’, as they’re relationships which mostly take place inside the head) which is actively associated with higher levels of depression. Online time spent watching porn is particularly bad; not only is the action internalised, but the people watched (usually women) become commodified. Commodification of people prevents proper relationships from developing – and it’s recognised that having good relationships with other people is very good for mental health.
Spending too long sitting at a desk: Too little time taking mood boosting green and blue exercise – green being outdoors, and blue being beside water – is associated with higher levels of depression. Diet is a related problem when sitting for too long, as habits of snacking and eating fast food (both bad for overall health) are easy to slip into.
Almost conversely, perfectionism!: Men are becoming more self-conscious in their need to look good at all times, and also to over perform at everything they turn their hands to. Too high expectations, which can include expectations of happiness, often ironically lead to lessened satisfaction with performance, and so to an endless unfulfillable quest. This is hardly conducive to mental ease.
Believing ‘things’ can fix us: There’s hardly an ad on TV, a laptop or tablet that doesn’t make out that buying something will make us feel better about the day we’ve had or who we are. And men are naturally great collectors of things. But the richest of men don’t seem to have greatly improved mental health for all their supercars, yachts or personal playparks. You only have to remember Michael Jackson. It’s people who fix us – when we have good relationships with them.
Instant gratification: It’s the opposite – delaying gratification – that’s good for us. Learning to wait for something for longer has been shown to result in better long term mental, emotional, physical, and even financial, health. Fascinating research by a psychology professor called Walter Mischel showed that the ability to delay gratification in early childhood correlated very strongly with more satisfactory adulthoods. We shouldn’t buy into advertisers’ alluring but false promises if we want the best mental health.
Over stimulation: Spending too long in noisy, busy places and becoming (not necessarily consciously) over stimulated and hyper. This can feel like excitement and can even become addictive, but our brains need quiet and reflective time. Being hyper does not equate to having lots of real energy, and people who are hyper burn out easily and deal with stress less well than those whose energy is the outcome of good diet, exercise and sleep. An inability to cope with stress is associated with anxiety and other forms of mental problems.
The X Factor effect: Focusing on ‘following one’s dreams’ and investing all your effort and aspirations into some single grand project is promoted by so many TV shows that we risk losing an appreciation of long-term commitment to skill building and dedication to a way of life, as opposed to a single ‘big prize’. Building a skills base – and so believing in one’s own efficacy – and having a sense of continuity in life, are associated with higher levels of contentment and satisfaction, whereas dedicating everything to unrealisable expectations is a form of delusion and often results in a sense of failure and sometimes overwhelming misery.
Not talking: ‘Let’s talk’ are words that often put the fear of (name your god here) into men, but talking things over can actually be good for your mental health. Most men are guilty of not talking enough when they have problems, for example they don’t go to the doctors as quickly as women when they feel something is off and they sometimes see counselling as a sign of weakness, thereby failing to nip problems in the bud. However, talking is not guaranteed to be beneficial for everyone, and that’s an area I cover in my book. Overall, though, letting people know when you need help is usually better for you in the long run than letting physical and emotional problems fester.