Home Featured Post Study on the “ABCs of Mental Health” finds that simply believing you can improve mental wellbeing helps actually improve it

Study on the “ABCs of Mental Health” finds that simply believing you can improve mental wellbeing helps actually improve it

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The num­ber of peo­ple strug­gling with poor men­tal health and men­tal dis­or­ders has been ris­ing around the world over the past few decades. Those who are strug­gling are increas­ing­ly fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties access­ing the kind of sup­port they need – leav­ing many wait­ing months for help, if they even qual­i­fy for treatment.

While it’s clear that more needs to be done to improve access to treat­ment, it doesn’t mean peo­ple inevitably have to strug­gle with their men­tal health as a result. In fact, there are many things peo­ple can do on their own to main­tain good men­tal health – and even pre­vent men­tal health prob­lems from devel­op­ing in the first place. Accord­ing to our recent research, one of the steps you can take to improve your men­tal well­be­ing may be as sim­ple as believ­ing that you can.

In our recent study, we asked 3,015 Dan­ish adults to fill out a sur­vey that asked ques­tions about men­tal health – such as whether they believe they can do some­thing to keep men­tal­ly healthy, whether they had done some­thing in the past two weeks to sup­port their men­tal health, and also whether they were cur­rent­ly strug­gling with a men­tal health prob­lem. We then assessed their lev­el of men­tal well­be­ing using the Short Warwick–Edinburgh Men­tal Well-being Scale, which is wide­ly used by health­care pro­fes­sion­als and researchers to mea­sure men­tal wellbeing.

As you’d expect, we found that men­tal well­be­ing was high­est among those who had done things to improve their men­tal health com­pared with the oth­er participants.

Inter­est­ing­ly how­ev­er, we found that – whether or not our respon­dents had actu­al­ly tak­en action to improve their men­tal well­be­ing – peo­ple who believed they could do some­thing to keep men­tal­ly healthy tend­ed to have high­er men­tal well­be­ing than those who didn’t have this belief.

So while it’s most ben­e­fi­cial to take steps to improve your men­tal health, even just believ­ing that you can improve it is asso­ci­at­ed with bet­ter over­all men­tal wellbeing.

Though our study didn’t look at the rea­sons for this link between belief and bet­ter men­tal health, it could be explained by a psy­cho­log­i­cal con­cept known as the “well­be­ing locus of con­trol”. Accord­ing to this con­cept, peo­ple who have an inter­nal well­be­ing locus of con­trol believe that their own atti­tudes and behav­iour con­trol their well­be­ing. On the oth­er hand, peo­ple with an exter­nal well­be­ing locus of con­trol think their men­tal well­be­ing is large­ly con­trolled by fac­tors or cir­cum­stances out­side of their con­trol (such as by oth­er peo­ple or by chance).

It’s pos­si­ble that hav­ing an inter­nal well­be­ing locus of con­trol may sub­con­scious­ly influ­ence one’s out­look, lifestyle or cop­ing mech­a­nisms. This in turn may also affect men­tal health – and pre­vi­ous research has linked this type of belief to few­er symp­toms of depres­sion, anx­i­ety and stress.

This con­cept may explain why par­tic­i­pants who believe they can do some­thing to change their men­tal health are also more like­ly to have a high lev­el of men­tal well­be­ing. And this find­ing in itself has enor­mous pre­ven­ta­tive poten­tial, as a high lev­el of men­tal well­be­ing is asso­ci­at­ed with a 69–90% low­er risk of devel­op­ing a com­mon men­tal disorder.

We know from a large body of research that there are many sim­ple things peo­ple can do in their day to day to sup­port and even improve their men­tal health. This is why we devel­oped the Act-Belong-Com­mit cam­paign, which pro­vides a research-based men­tal health “ABC” that can be used by every­one, regard­less of whether they’re strug­gling with a men­tal health prob­lem or not.

  • Act: Keep phys­i­cal­ly, men­tal­ly, social­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly active. Do some­thing – such as going for walks, read­ing, play­ing games or tak­ing up a hob­by. An active mind and body can fos­ter well­be­ing and help quell over­think­ing or wor­ry­ing about things that may be out­side of your control.
  • Belong: Keep up friend­ships and close social ties, engage in group activ­i­ties, and par­tic­i­pate in com­mu­ni­ty events. Do some­thing with some­one – whether that’s going to din­ner with friends or join­ing a recre­ation­al sports league. Spend­ing time with oth­er peo­ple can help you feel more con­nect­ed and build a sense of identity.
  • Com­mit: Set goals and chal­lenges, engage in activ­i­ties that pro­vide mean­ing and pur­pose in life, includ­ing tak­ing up caus­es and vol­un­teer­ing to help oth­ers. Do some­thing mean­ing­ful. This can help you build a sense of mean­ing, mat­ter­ing and self worth.

All three of these domains are fun­da­men­tal to good men­tal health. Doing just some of these activ­i­ties is asso­ci­at­ed with a range of well­be­ing ben­e­fits, includ­ing high­er life sat­is­fac­tion, and low­er risk of men­tal dis­or­ders, prob­lem­at­ic alco­hol use and even cog­ni­tive impair­ment. Feel­ing active, social­ly con­nect­ed, and engaged in mean­ing­ful activ­i­ties are gen­er­al­ly linked with bet­ter health and a longer lifespan.

As part of our study, we were able to show that know­ing these ABC prin­ci­ples can make an impor­tant dif­fer­ence. Among those who knew about them, about 80% said that the ABCs had giv­en them new knowl­edge about what they can do to sup­port their men­tal health, and about 15% said that they had also tak­en action to enhance it.

We should view the cur­rent men­tal health cri­sis as a wake-up call about how crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant it is that peo­ple are equipped with tools that may help them to sup­port and main­tain good men­tal health. The results of our study may serve to remind us just how much of an impact we can have our­selves when it comes to look­ing after our own men­tal well­be­ing – even if it’s just believ­ing that we can.

– Zig­gi Ivan San­ti­ni is a Men­tal Health Researcher at Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Den­mark; Char­lotte Meil­strup and Line Nielsen are Post­doc­tor­al fel­lows at Uni­ver­si­ty of Copen­hagen; Rob Dono­van is an Adjunct pro­fes­sor at The Uni­ver­si­ty of West­ern Aus­tralia; Vibeke Jen­ny Koushede is a Pro­fes­sor and Head of the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy at Uni­ver­si­ty of Copen­hagen. This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

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