We've never been taught to put our mental health first in the same way we've been taught to look after and listen to our bodies. This is simply ludicrous and irresponsible. As you're growing up, you're taught to try and reduce the risk of getting sick. Wash your hands often. Wrap up warm when it's cold. Get enough sleep. Keep active and eat well. But where's the guidance on reducing the risk of mental illness?
Everyone has mental health, in the same way everyone has physical health - and yet we're completely neglecting to give our children the knowledge to look after their minds. Everyone at some point in their childhood will face mentally challenging moments, from bullying to low self-esteem, and yet our societal response to those issues is to help the subjects after the fact, rather than give them the tools that could help lower the negative impact on their mental wellbeing.
Our approach to mental health has always been reactionary rather than proactive and that needs to change. Think of how many long-term mental health problems are linked to childhood trauma, abuse or neglect. And then think of how much good it could have done if those adults had been in a mentally better position to deal with those problems at the time. I'm not saying it would solve everything, but from my own experience, I believe that had I been taught mindfulness or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) at a young age, I wouldn't have been so hugely affected by the events of my childhood that remain present in my adult life.
And yet we only choose to teach these skills once someone's mental health is already compromised. Especially CBT - a technique of thinking about things in a different way and being aware of common pitfalls in our reasoning and thoughts (put simply). For instance, some mental illnesses such as depression can come about through a continued downward spiral of negative thinking. So imagine the vast difference we could make to our children's future mental health if instead we advised them on these pitfalls before the habit of negative thinking takes hold.
Not only that, but we'd be embedding into them the importance of mental self-care from a young age. When we prescribe rest to a child with a cold, they understand that when faced with a physical illness they must limit themselves in order to speed recovery. When a child is mentally sick, we should also instill in them the importance of listening to their mind and prescribing themselves the best thing in order to speed recovery. The only difference if that rest will almost always be the right thing for anyone with a cold, whereas the treatment for mental health problems can vary from person to person. But if they're already aware of techniques such as mindfulness and CBT then they're in a much better position already.
As these generations grow up, the stigma of mental illness will hopefully decrease along with the severity of a lot of conditions. It's not assured and it's not going to solve everything, but considering the mental illness epidemic that our children and young people face it's clear we're not doing enough for prevention. In adulthood, they then have the ability to know their mental limits and take mental health sick days when they need them before symptoms worsen.
I personally, along with many other people I know, still feel a guilt and shame associated with prioritising our mental health and listening to our own needs. I only wish that I had been taught mindfulness, CBT, and other techniques when I was young before I went through a lot of the experiences which remain the root of my mental health problems. I'm not sure it would have prevented me from getting depression and anxiety but I do think it could have reduced the severity significantly and potentially the longevity of it too. I've come to the difficult assumption that I will likely suffer from depression and anxiety for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean people like me should be the only ones who practice mentally boosting activities.
It's about time that we think long-term with mental health. It's not a vote winner because it's not immediate, it's not glamorous and it's not cheap. But it's an investment we should be making for future generations so they don't have to suffer in the same way we do.