A holistic conversation on mental health needs the scientific, the spiritual and the social
By Leo Owen
World Mental Health Day is a reminder of the importance of continuing to have serious conversations around mental health in our communities. It provides a yearly opportunity to share and reflect on our collective learning.
As a Wellcome graduate working on Mindscapes, an international cultural programme initiated by Wellcome Trust, which aims to support a transformation in how we understand, address, and talk about mental health, I have come to look at this topic more holistically. With data showing that one in four people are affected by a mental health problem in a given year, and with the pandemic bringing fresh insights into our understanding of this field, it is undeniable that we need to broaden our approach to mental health.
Whilst there is extensive development in drug-based therapies and psychotherapies, accessibility is often limited, particularly where mental health issues are stigmatised and othered. Often, these approaches look into curative processes and, although these have greatly advanced our understanding, and provided relief for millions, they leave many questions unanswered as the data on mental health soars.
Moving forward, a comprehensive approach is needed if we are aiming to reach a wider audience with the conversation on mental health. We should aim to adopt a universal and accessible language about mental health, pulling together the scientific, social and spiritual.
This requires the incorporation of global policy with local innovation, acknowledging scientific expertise and statistical data, while also recognising community voices and individual lived experience as valuable tools for mental health research. We are still in the process of learning what this might look like in practice.
We should aim to adopt a universal and accessible language about mental health, pulling together the scientific, social and spiritual.
As a Baha'i, I believe that another way that mental health can be explored is by considering how we as individuals engage with our wider communities. The Baha'i community has been exploring this topic through the concept of the “twofold moral purpose”. This is the idea that the transformation of the individual and the society are symbiotic processes and closely connected to our wellbeing. Part of this idea is that “man is organic with the world” and so to progress as a society is to progress an an individual, and vice versa.
Trying to apply this understanding, Baha’is and their friends around the world are committed to serving humanity through community building activities. These include spiritual and moral education classes for children, groups for young people harnessing their talents for the betterment of others, collective prayer gatherings, and the study of sequence of courses to raise our capacity for service. Experience suggests that these activities have great benefit to health and wellbeing, given people a greater sense of purpose in their lives.
Something that characterises the efforts of people serving or helping their community is the idea of “walking a path of service” and “mutual support”. We walk the path at our own pace but do not walk this path alone, rather we walk it alongside others, helping and supporting one another along the road. Many people experience anxiety, depression, loneliness. As a result, some may feel less motivated to be engaged in their service for a period of time, some may experience anxiety talking to new people they meet, some may go through personal challenges such as bereavement. Whatever the challenges, working and serving together could strengthen bonds of love and understanding and provide an environment for talking about our challenges in life.
We walk the path at our own pace but do not walk this path alone, rather we walk it alongside others, helping and supporting one another along the road.
In the Baha’i community, we have also begun to think about how the power of the arts can be applied to capture lived experience and discussions around hope and spirituality during the pandemic. Creative approaches can be vital not only for supporting conversations and potential action around mental health, as well as filling gaps in mental health research where granular lived experiences are often absent. In my work at Wellcome Trust, we are collaborating with global partners including artists in residencies to think about how to creatively address and encourage conversations around mental health in different local urban settings around the world. I am trying to combine the learning form my work and local community experience to gain a better understanding of various tools such as arts, in building spiritually conscious and supportive communities.
The area of mental health is still open for exploration. We are far from understanding how to overcome the multiple challenges of this multifaceted field. However, it seems likely that encouraging a wider and more in-depth conversation around mental health requires a willingness to involve elements that go beyond the mainstream approach – thinking beyond the material and considering our collective lived experience, with service at the heart.