Health

A Road Map for Mental Health

A Road Map for Mental Health

By Danielle Kuznetsov, AWO Moscow

 

The topic of mental health is the focus of our time. Finding an adequate answer to the problems at hand seems illusive, as human beings pop in and out of the ideal balance between the mind and soul depending upon what life throws our way. It is a mystery how human beings function: what affects one person is dismissed by another. Struggle and hardship are experienced differently, as are success and failure. So how can a subject as wide and varied as mental health be explored in such a way that answers can be found to make living easier? Considering the recent wave of celebrity suicides and mounting media focus on anxiety and depression, it seems that humanity is crying out in pain and forcing us to deal with a world that speeds up in complexity while basic human needs beg for attention. Mental health is no longer taboo to speak of, but much more still needs to be understood for change to take place.

I have spent a good amount of the last twenty-five years trying to figure out what it means to have positive mental health and how to be happy in life. At first, this started with my own dissatisfaction with myself, my world and all the ways I was a “have not.” I was a miserable person wearing a fake smile. Over time, I learned that my outer world was but a reflection of the inner movie being played: a watching again of the same old story word for word, believing and living it as if it were true. I knew little of the difference between thought and emotion and emotion and feeling, and therefore I was slave to what transpired between my ears. My exploration focused on finding inner peace for myself and making sense of how an emotionally unstable mother and an unavailable father shaped my identity and perception of the world. I wondered if my anxious thinking and sour outlook on life was “normal.” I was demanding, unrealistic, and never satisfied ‒ first and foremost, with myself! Was I mentally ill because I was so unhappy? The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illness as a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, resulting in the person’s lessened ability to relate to others and function each day. “A mental health condition isn’t the result of one event. Research suggests multiple, linking causes. Genetics, environment and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like being the victim of a crime. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too” (NAMI website, 2019).

I was blessed to have a woman enter my life who began to unpack these issues with me, mentally, emotionally and psychologically. In the process of trying to unlearn thinking/feeling/doing habits and behaviors and to replace them with productive, practical and logical ones, she taught me about healthy mental and psychological development for each age and stage of life. This brought clarity and structure to my life, my relationships and my parenting. Then my daughter began to have fits of rage at age five, so my focus changed and our family began learning about the brain as an organ: the conscious and subconscious mind, the emotions and their counterpart in the body ‒ physical feelings ‒ along with the mystery of genetics and its impact on a person. This journey has simultaneously been fascinating, infuriating, liberating, frustrating and neverending. Experts offered us some insight, but no solutions. So, I plugged along, trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together to find a way through to the hidden picture until one day, at age 14, my daughter tried to take her own life. This experience was a baptism into navigating the mystery of what it means to be human as I struggled to make sense of the pain.

In passing one day, I heard that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had the practice of only studying authentic minted Canadian currency in order that they might spot the counterfeit. This spoke to me regarding mental health. I stopped focusing on the pathology in my life, which felt confusing and complicated, and began researching the ideal state of a mentally healthy person. I now firmly believe that this is key in addressing the mental health epidemic ‒ whether the issue be genetically based, trauma inflicted or from a poor life environment ‒ because the answers are simple to understand albeit difficult to practice. Educating ourselves so that we can create a different world and reverse the current trend is based in a working knowledge of what a human needs to live a full life, how a human develops and grows out of those met needs, and the tools a person needs to build a firm foundation. Aristotle said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” Thankfully, I am not the only person in need of learning the skills to live a happy and productive life. Through their work, the following scholars gave me the information to begin to build the life I wanted rather than repairing the life I had. With careful examination of their theories, I have been able to change many aspects of my life and continue that work in the present.

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) was an American psychologist who developed a Hierarchy of Human Needs. He proposed that every person has the exact same needs, and depending upon where and to whom a person is born, they are able to receive what is needed for maturity. The theory is that one needs to fully process each level in order to be able to move up and address the next human need. In this process, mental health is defined as the ability of a person to move through each stage of human growth having their own needs met and having the ability to know how to help meet the needs of others.

The progression in mental health maturity is marked by four basic characteristics:                                                                Maslows hierarchy

1. A sense of self-control and responsibility. A person who is mentally healthy is in charge of their life and their behavior.

2. A tolerance for pain and suffering. A person who has mental health can endure frustration and failure as a part of living life. S/he is able to find inner strength to persist through difficulty and find a way to resolve the issue.

3. An ability to filter life in a positive fashion. This is a huge factor in mental health: seeing challenges as opportunities.

4. The ability to know and understand emotions in self and others and express them in a healthy way. This allows a person to behave resiliently and not take things personally, to know a person is both right and wrong in their perceptions, to be comfortable in their own skin, and to be able to take risks; as failure is just a signal to try again.

Erik Erikson (1902–1994) was an ego psychologist and stage theorist who took Freud’s controversial theory of psychosexual development and modified it as a psychosocial theory. Erikson emphasized that the ego makes positive contributions to development by mastering attitudes, ideas and skills at each stage of development. This mastery helps children grow into successful, contributing members of society (Boundless Psychology, 2019). During each of Erikson’s eight stages, there is a psychological conflict that must be successfully overcome in order for a child to develop into a healthy, well-adjusted adult. Just as in Maslow’s hierarchy, Erickson’s stages point to the fact that a person can get stuck in a stage that has not developed properly.

 

erik eriksons stages of psychosocial development

 

The progression in developmental health maturity is marked by four basic characteristics:

1. Secure attachment to self and others. A person who is developmentally healthy lives out of a foundation of optimism, security, confidence and hope, which in turn has allowed him/her to build self-esteem through the autonomy of learning new skills and knowing right from wrong.

2. A sense of purpose and industry. A developmentally healthy person uses creativity and imagination to solve problems, maintain a learner’s mindset, and have a feeling of competence in meeting the task at hand.

3. A secure sense of identity and ability to have intimate relationships. Devotion to ideas, philanthropy and friends helps the individual seek deeper and satisfying relationships leading to long term commitment.

4. The ability to produce or create for the benefit of others, and in that to find fulfillment. Developmental health affords people the experience of deep contentment in making a valuable contribution to society leading to a meaningful life.

We move from what a person needs, to how that person develops, to the way in which those pieces allow a person to create a healthy life they love. Very few people have the privilege of such a rich human experience that they consistently behave fluidly over time. But we are who we choose to be, whether we know it or not. "Alfred Adler (1870-1937), world renowned philosopher and psychiatrist, stressed the need to understand individuals within their social context. During the early 1900s, Adler began addressing such crucial and contemporary issues as equality, parent education, the influence of birth order, lifestyle, and the holism of individuals. Adler believed that we all have one basic desire and goal: to belong and to feel significant” (Adler Graduate School, 2019). We can see the clear overlap between Erickson’s eight stages of development and Adler’s focus on the individual within the context of society ‒ family being the first “society” to which a person belongs.

Adlerian psychology uses common sense words to explain the human experience. Man is viewed as a self-conscious WHOLE, living in an open system with others. Thinking, feeling, emotion and behavior can only be understood within the context of one’s pattern of dealing with their life environment. As people grow up, they strive toward the goal of significance, success and superiority in proportion to the difficulty at hand. Inability to accomplish this leads to a feeling of inferiority which shows up as behavior patterns in the person’s life. Each person strives to become more “perfect," motivated by the strong desire for accomplishment. A person must choose to use their creative ability in the shaping of their own personality in order attain self-mastery. As individuals strive for significance, themes and patterns of behavior show up early in life and color their perceptions and actions. Understanding this allows one to make sense of their own behavior and find a balance between how they choose to live and the mutual benefit for the common good of society.

Aaron Beck (born July 18, 1921) greatly contributed to the field of psychology through his research on the correlation between thought and behavior. As Adler asserted that the need to belong and succeed leads to behavior to realize those goals, Beck, known as the Father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, proposed that how and what we think about affects how we feel, and this correlates directly with our behaviors and our choices. He developed “talk therapy” which in short is a constructive way to become aware of our thoughts and understand how they make us feel a certain way and drive us to action. Beck asserted that when thinking is whole and integrated, a person objectively processes what is going on in him- or herself, others and the world. This in turn sets the stage for sound decision-making and confident steps in taking action. When a person’s basic needs have been met and their developmental milestones have been nurtured, and a person’s society provides a place to grow into mastery, a person’s thinking (their way of looking at the world) and behaving become congruent with the inner individual, leading to life that flows naturally. Beck’s model of Think, Feel, Do is a profound yet highly practical equation to help people see clearly and backtrack to be able to move forward.

 

Depicting basic tenets of CBT

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Depicting_basic_tenets_of_CBT.jpg 

The progression in behavioral maturity is marked by four characteristics.

1. A high sense of self-awareness. A person who is behaviorally mature is aware of their inner dialogue and the emotions underneath the surface of daily life. This awareness leads to curious exploration between what is real in life today and what one would like it to be.

2. A rigorous commitment to truthful assessment. A behaviorally mature person knows that intentionality in living is a must. The regular habit of self-examination guides him or her to do the work to correct limiting beliefs, assess true values, and align those with life choices.

3. A developed habit to force thoughts to control actions. This behavioral maturity creates flexibility in the life of a person through clear decision-making, which enables us to be in charge of our choices. We respond to life rather than react.

4. A fluency in emotional intelligence. Behaviorally mature people lead out of their true selves, which gives them the capacity to accept others as they are and to serve others without looking to benefit in return. Empathy is the language of a behaviorally mature person, as it allows for deep connection and understanding.

As you can see, nothing I have shared is too complex for the average person. Yet if it is not spelled out in how we live life, much goes unseen and untaught. People learn through experience, and so much of what it means to be healthy has to be modeled in order to be learned. I am an ordinary woman who has the privilege of an extraordinary life. The “extra” is not from money, power and things or status, but rather from common sense wisdom available to all. There is a proverb which says that people perish from lack of knowledge. I believe that to be true. The information that floods us every day is not the same as knowledge. Knowledge is understanding and know-how combined. Maslow gave a picture of mental health through met human needs. Erickson gave a picture of mental health through human developmental milestones. Adler and Beck gave a picture of mental health through proper processing of thoughts, emotions and actions in relation to a person’s everyday life experience. Together, they gave me a road map for continued mental health and creating the life I choose to live. And the best thing of all is that now I have something valuable to share with others as well. After all, what is happiness if it is not given away?

 

 Sources: 

Alfred Adler: Theory and Application | Adler Graduate School [website]. Available at: https://alfredadler.edu/about/alfred-adler-theory-application [Accessed May 31, 2019].

Nielsen, N. (2016). "Inverting Maslow's Hierarchy" (article and image) | Medium.com [website]: https://medium.com/@jnnielsen/inverting-maslowshierarchy-b2c32156f091 [Accessed May 31, 2019].

Boundless Psychology, Version 11 (2019). Ch. 13, Sec. 2: "Erickson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development" [online] Available at:    https://courses.lumenlearning.com/teachereducationx92x1/chapter/eriksons-stages-of-psHiychosocial-development/  [Accessed May 31, 2019]. 

Mental Health Conditions | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. [website] Nami.org. Available at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions [Accessed May 31, 2019].

VeryWell (2019). [image] Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/erik-eriksons-stages-ofpsychosocial-development-2795740 [Accessed May 31, 2019].

McLeod, S. (2019). "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" (article). Simply Psychology [website]: https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-therapy.html [Accessed May 31, 2019].
Kirby, S. (2018) "Aaron Beck ‒ His Contribution to Psychology (article). Better Help [website]: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/psychologists/aaron-beck-theory-his-contribution-to-psychology/ [Accessed May 31, 2019].

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