Arianna Huffington: On World Mental Health Day, the Conversation Should Shift from Awareness to Action

October 10, 2019, 12:15 PM UTC

October 10th is World Mental Health Day. All around the world, organizations, and individuals are raising awareness about the scope of our mental health crisis.

And it is a crisis. More than 300 million people struggle with depression, making it the world’s leading cause of disability. Every 40 seconds, someone loses their life to suicide. As The Guardian put it in a headline last year: “World in mental health crisis of ‘monumental suffering,’ say experts.”

When a problem is so huge and so daunting, it’s easy to feel paralyzed and helpless. That’s why the best use of this moment is to shift from general, big-picture awareness to actionable steps that support mental well-being. And people want and need help taking action: 91% of Americans say ignoring or not knowing their warning signs of overstress has had a negative impact on their mental well-being, according to a Thrive Global survey of more than 2,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 85. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they wish they knew more small everyday steps to improve their mental well-being, and half say that when it comes to managing stress, they don’t know where to start.

The goal is to help people spot the warning signs of mental health challenges so that they can seek the help they need, make the changes they need to make, and live the lives they want—not just the lives they settle for.

There were many other crises where the evidence was available and incontrovertible, but businesses, individuals, and society as a whole waited too long to take action. We saw it with tobacco: millions of lives lost, while tobacco companies publicly denied the addictive, destructive nature of its products. We see it now with climate change and a culture of denial, or with vaping, or with our growing addiction to social media and games.

The good news is that the table is set for this shift. Years of campaigns have moved mental health awareness from the margins to the mainstream. (May has been Mental Health Month since 1949.) Schools are talking about it. Police departments are talking about it. More and more prominent people, from pop stars and politicians to pro athletes and members of the British royal family, are chipping away at the stigma by sharing their own stories and struggles.

So what does it mean to make a shift from awareness to action? In the face of a global crisis, what can any one of us, as individuals, realistically do?

The answer lies in the science. Researchers at Stanford Medicine are revolutionizing the way we understand our own stress, empowering us to take meaningful action to manage the impact of stress in our everyday lives.

Dr. Leanne Williams, Director of Stanford’s Precision Mental Health and Wellness Center, has used high-definition brain imaging technology to characterize eight different kinds of “short circuits” that occur in the brain when we experience persistent negative stress we feel we can’t control, called biotypes. Understanding the thoughts, emotions, and patterns associated with each biotype, can lead to an understanding of the moments and scenarios when we struggle most—and what actions can help with depression or anxiety.

Think of it as spotting the signals in ourselves. We’re good at doing this for our physical health. When we notice symptoms like sniffling or a sore throat, we know we might have a cold coming on. And we know there are things we can do to get out in front of a cold in preventative ways.

But until now, we haven’t had the right cultural conversations to encourage taking upstream action when it comes to mental health. That’s what makes this moment so promising.

Everyone has their own way of responding to negative stress. I know that I, for example, have always had a tendency to ruminate. It’s a kind of obsessive thinking and rethinking around negative experiences, mistakes, interactions. I’ve been speaking in public for decades, but I still remember all the times I’ve ever made a mistake in a speech—I go back, self-edit, beat myself up for being imperfect, even when I’m pretty sure no one noticed it but me. It’s like being stuck in a loop, with consequences on my productivity, focus, and ability to find joy in the present. These are all qualities associated with the biotype Rumination. The other biotypes Dr. Williams has identified are Negative Bias, Anxious Avoidance, Threat Response, Emotional Numbness, Inattention, Cognitive Fog, and Context Insensitivity.

At Thrive Global, we’ve partnered with Stanford Medicine faculty to combine this research with Thrive’s behavior change expertise, helping individuals and companies take actionable Microsteps to build healthy habits that fuel greater well-being and performance. In order to have the biggest possible impact, we’ve created Thriving Mind, a digital mental well-being program that speaks directly to people navigating the stresses and demands of the 21st century workplace. And we’re thrilled to have our inaugural partner, Accenture, roll out Thriving Mind to its 480,000 employees around the world this fall. Early next year, this will also roll out to Hilton team members worldwide.

And, launching on World Mental Health Day, will be a Thriving Mind special section of our site, helping people raise awareness of the brain science and biotypes, and sharing Microsteps that help us build self-awareness—and then turn that self-awareness into healthy new habits. Thrive Global will also be sharing the personal stories of role models, including Taraji P. Henson and Melinda Gates, and running op-eds from thought leaders offering action-oriented takes on the mental health issues many of us face, such as anxiety in the workplace, financial stress, loneliness, the specific stress racial minorities face, and much more.

The mental health crisis is also directly tied to the stress epidemic. While stress in itself isn’t bad, it’s when stress becomes cumulative that it takes a toll on mental health. The trouble is, the hyper-connected, always-on way of working and living is practically designed to heap negative stress. We’ve been conditioned to power through, never taking a moment to recharge ourselves. We’ve built our entire definition of success around it. It’s a definition of success that works for a while—until it doesn’t.

That’s why learning to build self-awareness is so important. When we know ourselves—the sources of our stress, how we respond, and what actions help us recharge—we’re far better able to minimize the damage. We can’t eliminate stress, but we can learn to manage it. And we can do the same with mental health challenges.

Arianna Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global.

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