The past few years have seen an increased focus on mental health and an attempt to remove any stigma associated with it. Campaigns and awareness weeks around the world have focused on educating us on the truths and myths surrounding mental health.

A lot of progress has been made, but there’s still a long way to go towards giving mental well-being the focus it deserves (and needs).

When I was training to become a coach, the programme I was enrolled in made it very clear that coaching was not the same as therapy. Not yet regulated like psychiatry or counselling, coaching is about working with people who are already well, who want to go from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Whenever a situation would be outside of the scope of our training, we should emphasise to our client that we are not qualified and instead recommend that they seek a therapist. Recently, I interacted with an organisation where those lines were more blurred, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the kinds of cases that could arise.

But is a narrow definition of mental health (and illness) helpful, or does it ignore a broader group of people and especially ignore a lot of the early signs and precursors to having more serious mental health problems?

What is mental health and wellbeing?

The WHO defines mental health as:

“a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

With this definition, the scope is broadened and includes many more people that you and I know, who wouldn’t typically be considered in a discussion on mental health. People who, if we reverse that definition from the WHO, are not realising their own potential, are struggling to cope with stress, not doing their best work and not contributing in a meaningful way to their community.

In fact, the theme for Mental Health Awareness 2018 in the UK is stress. While a degree of stress can be beneficial – those moments and experiences when you step out of your comfort zone and it’s nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding and fulfilling – when stress becomes excessive, it can wear you down. Eventually, it can impact both mental and physical health.

Looking to positive psychology

Positive psychology proposes a more proactive approach to taking care of your mental health before you show signs of ‘illness’. It seeks to find ways to make life better for people, to help them not just survive but thrive, and focuses on things like well-being, resilience and personal strengths.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology, suggests that there are three dimensions to a happy life:

1) The Pleasant Life is realised if we learn to savour and appreciate basic pleasures like companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs
2) The Good Life is achieved through discovering our unique virtues and strengths, and using them creatively to enhance our lives
3) The Meaningful Life is one in which we find a deep sense of fulfilment by leveraging our unique strengths for a purpose greater than ourselves

This framework is reminiscent of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where you strive for self-actualisation and meaning right at the top of the pyramid (and it was, in fact, Maslow who coined the ‘positive psychology’ term).

In a sense, positive psychology is “the scientific study of what makes life worth living”.

Prioritising your mental well-being

Suddenly, I feel much more comfortable engaging in a discussion on mental health. This idea of thriving and not just surviving, of focusing on your strengths and of finding more meaning and balance in the work that you do – this is exactly what I’ve been striving to do in my own life, and what I’m helping clients do now as well.

So if you’ve been dismissing the debate on mental health as being important but ‘not really relevant to you’, I’d urge you to consider it from this broader perspective.

Approach mental health as you do physical health, focusing on prevention versus treatment and looking at it from all different aspects. Your mental well-being is connected to your bodily health, just as it’s connected to your job satisfaction and integration and harmony between your work and personal life.

If you’re interested in exploring your well-being with this more holistic approach, you can get my well-being strategy guide here: Get the well-being strategy guide >>