Wellbeing is here to stay
Posted Thursday 3 December 2009
Sitting on the train back up to Leeds from Brighton, I have a moment, or rather five hours, to reflect on a thought-provoking day and a half spent at this year’s Mind Conference.
The conference focused on recognising the importance of wellbeing, and looking not just at how we can treat or prevent mental illness, but how we can actively strive for positive states of being.
By way of (weak) analogy, if a mouse is being chased by a cat, it can keep its attention on the cat and focus solely on staying out of its reach. Or it can also look at where it wants to go, where it may be safest, and perhaps where there’s a nice bit of cheese.
In reality this represented a very significant and courageous cultural shift for Mind. Did it work? Yes.
Guided by Mind's CEO Paul Farmer, an affable young Bill Gates lookalike, the conference went from introducing the science of wellbeing, to how it’s used now, to how it might be linked in with existing mental health services in the future.
Wellbeing is very much a science now, grounded in Positive Psychology. Sandra Carlisle, a professor at Glasgow University, talked of how modern society, and indeed the economy, must learn from it if it is to support the wellbeing of society. This would be hard for anyone to deny.
The more challenging part of the conference was connecting this to the mental health field, and integrating it with existing practices.
A panel of the most diverse personalities imaginable were called upon to debate the issue. Peter Beresford with his deep booming voice and passionate outbursts, and Marion Janner, who evoked in the audience equal parts laughter, appreciation, and nervousness over what she might say or do next.
It was the simple points that carried the most value, such as Professor John Hopton’s reminder that wherever we go with wellbeing in the future, mental health services will always be required due to the inevitability of unfortunate genetic makeup and circumstances.
As a whole, the discussion was overcomplicated and rife with false dichotomies symptomatic of the traditional view of mental health, such as ‘does the responsibility lie with the individual or the organisation?’.
The outdated view of mental health is that we are either mentally ill or healthy. This view is divisive and inaccurate. The modern view recognises scales of wellbeing.
The question therefore becomes not just how do the mentally healthy support the mentally ill, but how do each of us promote the wellbeing of us all. And the first answer to this is that we must lead by example. That no one prompted the panellists or delegates to think about what they do for their own wellbeing was a missed opportunity.
The final speaker of the conference was Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College school in Berkshire. He began by asking the audience to consider how school was for them, and how it should be.
Having heard Professor Seldon speak before, I thought that his idealism might receive some scorn from the more pessimistic individuals, but his talk was instead met with shouts of “I wish you’d been my headmaster!”.
Wellington College teaches children ‘the skills of well-being’. This is done through specific classes, and a College culture that supports them (‘ten-point programme’). The classes themselves consist of meditation, a look at the constituents of a good life, and activities similar to the Marshmallow Test, which encourages self-control.
Professor Seldon, who is probably the nearest thing there is to a real life Albus Dumbledore, closed his talk by appealing to Gandhi’s oft-used quote, “be the change you want to see in the world”. He was not present for the rest of the Conference, but had he been, he might have realised how appropriate this quote was. It provided the definitive yet simple answer to the question that the conference posed: “where to with wellbeing?”.
For what the science of wellbeing does, is enable us to all to ‘be the change’. If each of us are not applying it to our own lives though, we cannot expect others to apply it to theirs. Recognising this, Paul Farmer concluded an exciting two days, by directing us to the New Economics Foundation’s ‘five ways to wellbeing’: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, Give.
Edward has recently launched the Student Mental Wealth Project, which aims to build a network of students championing mental health and wellbeing in every university.
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