What We Can Learn From World Mental Health Day 2016

by Oct 10, 2016

World Mental Day – October 10th, 2016

Today is October 10th, which means we, the global community, are celebrating our 24th annual World Mental Health day. World Mental Health day was first put on by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) in 1992. This is a day for mental health education, awareness, and advocacy for the entire international community of which we are all a part. Indeed it is also a day, as the World Health Organization says, “for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.”

I’d like to focus less on my work, and more on my general outlook and philosophy on mental health care in society. We’ve got some serious work to do. This year’s theme,  ‘Dignity in Mental Health (DIMH): Psychological & Mental Health First Aid for All’, a campaign to eradicate the stigma and taboo that has surrounded mental illness for hundreds of years. Sure, we’ve come a long way since the mentally ill were thought to have demons in their heads, where the ancient medical professionals of the time would perform trepanation interventions, drilling holes into the skulls so the spirits could leave the ‘possessed’. Our understanding of mental illness has come far certainly; and we need to go further in education and creating awareness. We all have a role to play in removing the stigma of mental health, and it starts with normalizing it.

The Power of Permission Giving


The Power of Permission Giving

Imagine for a moment, you’re at your annual physical, and upon completing the examination, the doctor says, “You’ve screened positive for illness x.” You’re feeling alarmed at this news, but then the doctors says, “This is quite normal, about 40% of the general population develops illness x in their 30’s.” Chances are you’re likely to feel more optimistic and even open about talking to others about this illness. It’s as if you’ve been given permission to be this way, for the time being. If, on the other hand the doctor had said, “I’m afraid only 1 in 10,000 Americans develops this form of illness x,” you’re bound to worry more, feel less optimistic about your outcomes, and likely not talk about it with anyone. Bottom line, we need to normalize how common mental health disorders are. The more we talk about them, the more social connection and social support those who struggle with mental disorders will have. Furthermore, stigma, discrimination and lack of awareness often prevent people from accessing the support they need.

Some stats: 

  • Every 40 seconds somebody somewhere in the world dies by suicide, and the young are disproportionately affected. 1
  • Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. 5
  • At least one in four adults will experience mental health difficulties at some time and there is nobody who has not had direct contact with somebody experiencing psychological or mental health difficulties. 1
  • According to the World Health Organization, ‘if we don’t act urgently, by 2030 depression will be the leading illness globally.’ 2
  • The U.K., the E.U. and the U.S. report findings that between 15-30% of their working populations will battle some form of mental health problem. 3

Why Mental Health Literacy Matters

We as an international community will have a far greater reaching impact by engaging societies at all levels, including domains such as:

  • Health policy
  • Social policy
  • Taxation
  • Employment
  • Urban planning
  • Education*

As with many issues that I’m passionate about, I come at this from an *educational perspective – promoting mental health literacy within the family, as well as within child-care, pre-school and school settings. As a marriage and family therapist, perhaps I am biased in believing that change begins with the parents of the next generation. In fact, the beginnings of mental health are “born” during pregnancy and the first years of a child’s life. One of the core objectives of the WFMH is to promote mental health literacy, including “socio-emotional skills, coping skills and stress management skills.”

Physical Education vs. Mental Health Education


Physical Education vs. Mental Health Education

Let’s take a moment to compare how our society treats physical education contrasted with mental health education. Think about P.E. in the public school curriculum. Around the mid 19th century Germany, Sweden, and England influences the development of P.E. in the U.S. In 1866, California becomes the first state to pass a law requiring twice per day exercise periods in public schools 4. In the early 20th century different camps debate over why P.E. is important, “[contributing] to the physical well-being of children, as well as to their social, emotional, and intellectual development” (Thomas Wood and Rosalind Cassidy), versus, “[emphasizing] the development of skills and the maintenance of the body, [being] the primary objective” (Charles McCloy) 4. More recently, C Edwin Bencraft (1999) offered the following benefits of P.E.:

  • “Challenging motor tasks before the age of ten can increase cognitive ability due to a heavier, more dendrite-rich brain.”
  • “Aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning by increasing the number of capillaries serving the brain through the delivery of more oxygen and glucose and removal of carbon dioxide.”
  • “Cross-lateral movements increase the communication ability between the brain’s hemispheres.”
  • “Physical activity reduces the production of stress chemicals that inhibit cognitive processing.”

It seems as though as a society, we value P.E. for its “cognitive health” benefits, but are still failing to recognize the benefits of having formalized mental health education – in addition to intra-familial mental health education. Now I realize that the educational curriculum is packed enough as it is. I’m not asking for M.H.E to be added to P.E., Music, and Art – though it would be nice (baby steps), but could we at least have periodic mental health education given to students at developmentally critical times? We talk to kids about sex in 5th grade, 8th grade, and 10th grade (or at least in my County/State we did). Why not talk to kids about mental health topics in public schools, in developmentally appropriate ways starting in Kindergarten through 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. People who know a lot more than me can explore when and why certain ages would be optimal, but it has to start somewhere.

What We Can Learn From World Mental Health Day, and the Action Plan Moving Forward

Speaking of those who know best on this topic, the WFMH recommends we focus on doing the following:

  • We call on governments to make psychological and mental health first aid a priority to bring it in line with physical first aid
  • We all need to learn to provide basic psychological and mental health first aid so that we can provide support to distressed individuals in the same way we do in a physical health crisis
  • We should all address the stigma associated with mental ill-health so that dignity is promoted and respected and more people are empowered to take action to promote mental wellbeing
  • We should do our bit to spread understanding of the equal importance of mental and physical health and the need for their integration in care and treatment
  • The media should educate the general public on the need for psychological and mental health first aid and the importance of fighting mental health stigma and discrimination
  • We call on all employers to provide psychological and mental health first aid to their employees just as they do for physical first aid
  • We call on all schools and educational institutions to make psychological and mental health first aid available to their staff and students

Related Articles:
School Based Therapy
Every Bite You Take: Nutrition and Mental Health
Becoming a Father: “Babies Don’t Come With Instruction Manuals” … Or Do They?

1 World Federation for Mental Health. (2016). Dignity in mental health: Psychological & mental health first aid for all (Report No. 24). Occoquan, VA: World Federation for Mental Health.
2 WHO Global Burden of Disease (2008): 2004 update. Geneva: World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/GBD_report_2004update_full.pdf (accessed Oct. 9, 2016)
3 WHO Mental health and work: Impact, issues, and good practices (2000): 2002 update. Geneva: World Health Organization.
http://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/712.pdf (accessed Oct. 9, 2016)

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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