Today is World Mental Health Day. Every 10th of October, this day is acknowledged to highlight the prevalence of mental health problems across society. In my view, we need to be acknowledging this every day. Mental illness does not discriminate and can potentially affect any of us. If you've been in a large-ish meeting or conference call today, chances are at least one person there struggles with a mental health problem.
Having experienced and witnessed mental illness, I'm delighted that today is also the day that Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK, has shown commitment to mental health and announced the appointment of a suicide prevention minister. It is hoped that Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price's new role will help tackle the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. Of course, I'm not delighted that such a position needs to exist.
The role of technology
Improving mental wellbeing is something we as individuals, and our companies as employers, should think about all year round and I find it interesting to see the role that technology is playing in healthcare. Even the relatively straight-forward use of search engine optimisation (SEO) means that searching "suicide" on Google will bring up an emergency number to speak to the UK charity, Samaritans, and the results that immediately follow are all links to support resources.
It is somewhat ironic that overuse of technology can be a contributor to poor mental health but, on the flip side, having a smartphone opens up access to a plethora of apps which can deliver support to you, your loved ones and your colleagues. Here are just a few examples.
Getting your meds without leaving the house
On a very practical level, the NHS's recently released app, Echo, makes it easier for you to order repeat prescriptions from your doctor. After ordering and paying securely through the app, your medications will be posted straight to an address of your choice. For people desperately needing a duvet day (or longer) or who suffer from anxiety in crowds, for example, the whole process is made far more manageable than tackling the insurmountable task of leaving the house for a trek to the pharmacy. And when the time for a refill comes around again, Echo will remind you that you need to re-order your prescription.
Finding your zen on your smartphone
There are over 2000 meditation apps out there, but Headspace is one that stands out in that they are using clinically-validated research to develop their product and making meditation far more accessible. The guided exercises are designed to be used for around 10 minutes a day and although one of the app's founders is an ordained Buddhist monk, you're not suddenly going to discover the meaning of life and magic away all your problems (including that ridiculously long sale and purchase agreement or the thousands of data subject access requests you've received since the GDPR was implemented). Rather, through mindfulness techniques and taking just a few minutes out of your day, you can have control of your own mind, acknowledge those bad thoughts, step back and see them for what they are.
Big Data is good!
It's not just health focused apps that are contributing to the fight against mental illness. Use of big data may help to solve or inform healthcare issues. While much of the media seems to be promulgating a message that giving away our data is evil and we must avoid data sharing at all costs, tracking and pooling large sets of data via online websites or apps might provide helpful insight into health. Some analyses looking at language and keywords have been able to spot previously unknown patterns in people more likely to suffer depression or have suicidal thoughts. I wonder what we'll see next with this.
Vulnerable Customer Specialists
Many organisations outside the health market are now building functionality into their existing technology to help address mental health problems. Monzo bank is a great example as they have been developing a feature that lets customers block transactions to gambling merchants, be it online or in person, from being made on their Monzo account. To unblock, customers have to call up the bank where they will be gently but helpfully asked questions such as, "Has your situation changed since you put the block in place?". Even if the block is lifted, this won't be implemented for another 48 hours. Given that individuals with gambling addictions are more likely to have a range of mental health problems including stress-related disorders, depression and drug abuse, I think this is a fabulous idea! Monzo even have employees who are "Vulnerable Customer Specialists".
It's an ongoing journey
Sadly, there is evidence that online platforms are learning from gambling companies to keep users hooked, thus exacerbating mental health problems and contributing to the loneliness epidemic. That's a whole other issue though and I want to try to keep this post as one which looks at positive solutions. The really ironic thing is that while I've been writing, I've just realised that I've missed CMS's World Mental Health Day event, "This is Me: the importance of expression to mental health" at which CMS is launching a new video and unveiling a new piece of art from Suzie Lark, which is based on her own mental health journey.
I don't purport to be an expert, and what I've talked about above is by no means a conclusive solution to all mental health problems. Our brains are marvellously complex and there's a reason I'm in the legal sector, not psychology or medicine. Nevertheless, I hope this post serves as food for thought and that you can share it on your social channels as just a tidbit to help tackle the stigma around mental illness.
I won't wish you a "happy" World Mental Health Day, because I know that happiness may not be an emotion some of you are capable of right this moment. Instead, I am channelling you some healing energy through the world wide web.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling, there are a number of charities here to help. Below are a couple of those operating in the UK:
The Samaritans (www.samaritans.org) are open 24 hours a day. Call 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Campaign Against Living Miserably (www.thecalmzone.net) offers support to men. Call 0800 58 58 58 between 17:00 and 00:00 every day
When many of us think of someone with a mental health condition, we think of a homeless person or the perpetrator of a school shooting, thanks, in large part, to the media. On the flip side, we think of the quirky, creative celebrity who struggles every now and then but is able to take time off in between projects. But how many of us think of the high-performing professional who is successful at work but has occasional flare-ups of a condition like depression or anxiety, much like someone with chronic asthma?