In New Zealand, as in many parts of the world, we are faced with a growing mental health crisis. Quite aside from our staggeringly high youth suicide rate, growing up with anxiety, pressure and stress seems to have become the new normal. Adults fare no better: when I speak with leaders and CEOs, burnout and organisational dysfunction are seen not just as inevitable but also as an inherent and even relevant element of life and work.
So why, despite the vast sums of money being invested in the wellbeing and resilience of our young people, employees and leadership teams, are we not all genuinely thriving? Why is this still even an issue? Well partly, and inevitably, for the reason above – very few people actually believe that it is possible, or even normal (or desirable), to thrive. And this, for the very simple reason that, individually and collectively, we still have no solid, principle-based understanding of what mental health actually is, let alone how it can become a basic, universal framework for life.
When most of us, experts included, use the term ‘mental health’, what we actually think of is mental illness, or a version of mental distress – anxiety, depression, insecurity, stress and burnout, for instance. We relegate it to the “not relevant to me”, or “problem/person to be fixed” side of life. But mental health, as the name suggests, has nothing to do with fixing, or coping, or pressure, stress, or illness. Instead, much like a well-run vehicle, mental health actually points to the default human state of ease, freedom, and clarity of mind that is built into the human system and that can be both understood and accessed at all times. It is about thriving, not managing and coping, and should form the backbone of all advanced education, leadership and human endeavour. It is certainly what we would all hope for our children. If, as leaders, we want to improve ordinary people’s experience of mental health, in all areas of society, the crucial first step is to re-think and shift our understanding and definition, and to start educating people not in how to better cope with stress, but in the innate human capacity to thrive, no matter what. More profoundly, we need to start educating people in the inner mechanics behind – and indeed tangible, practical, real-world value of – mental freedom in all areas of life.
As a simultaneous interpreter working at the highest levels of the EU for ten years, my ability to interpret any speaker on any topic in real time was built on an intuitive basic appreciation for mental excellence. But mental excellence – the ability not to cope with but to actually thrive in the unknown and in the face of difficulty – is not something that is exclusive to those working in high-level fields. Clarity of mind, mental freedom and the ability to navigate life and work with ease, regardless of personality, background or current challenges (whether financial, family, personal or professional), are built into the human mind and are available to all.
But more significantly, they are a crucial aspect of high performance and success. It always fascinates me that the same people who try to convince me that a revved-up, busy mind is necessary and even responsible given the complexities of life will always say the exact opposite when explaining how to get the highest performance out of their car or expensive phone. An accurate understanding of mental excellence is a simple, fundamental and currently entirely overlooked aspect of the education system and world of business and leadership. Only when we stop looking to achieve mental health as some kind of far-off destination, and instead look to understand the very in-built, universal, nature of it, will we be able to make any sustainable and tangible progress in society. Helping people understand how to actually move beyond a pre-existing but invisible foundation of mental health into a broader understanding of mental excellence is the only way to create a new generation of leaders and ordinary citizens who are resilient, creative, resourceful and mentally agile in the face of anything.
At Susan Andrewes Consulting Ltd, we work with leaders and individuals who are interested in understanding how the mind is built not just to thrive but to excel. If you would like to experience and operate from mental clarity, or you are a leader who is interested in developing a culture within your team, organisation or school that is built on mental excellence, please contact us.