The End of Mental Health -- And Why That's Good

The idea of mental health -- as we know it -- has reached a dead end. It doesn't describe much of anything relevant to people's lives today.
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The idea of mental health -- as we know it -- has reached a dead end. It doesn't describe much of anything relevant to people's lives today. If you google "mental health," most of what comes up describes mental illness, not mental health. Both practitioners and researchers focus more on understanding and treating emotional disturbance than on describing what health is or how to build it.

That's good, actually, because it opens the door to a needed, broad re-thinking of what psychological health looks like in today's world -- in your emotions, thoughts, attitudes, values and behavior. In this post I explain what's brought us to this dead-end, and I sketch some features of psychological health that reflect new challenges and realities of today's tumultuous world.

First, let's look at why we're at this dead end. The aims of treatment for emotional conflicts -- whether via medications, psychotherapy or a combination of the two -- have been, in essence, good management, coping and adaptation. That is, management of emotional conflicts that create dysfunction and of symptoms like depression and anxiety. Coping with stress or sustained conflict in your work, relationships and other parts of your life; and good adaptation or adjustment to the norms, values and conventional behavior of the society or group you're part of. Those goals are useful, per se, but there are three problems with them. One is that they don't work so well in today's world of upheaval, uncertainty and rapid change. Another is that the norms and behavior that you adapt to, even successfully, may themselves be unhealthy to begin with. That can create new conflicts that weren't there before. For example, trying to adjust to an unhealthy work culture, or adapting yourself to living within a destructive or abusive relationship.

A third problem is that the managing-coping-adapting view of health is simply inadequate for dealing with the psychological challenges people face in the world we now live in. Those include a mixture of social, economic and political issues that impact fellow humans and our collective future. The mental health field is too stuck within a 20th-century mentality, one that assumes relative stability and predictable change in society and in personal lives. But as I describe below, today's world is one of constant turbulence, rapid technological change and global interconnection. This shift has thrown people's lives and expectations of the future into upheaval. It's aroused continuous fears and has rendered old ways of coping with change and conflicts ineffective.

In addition, recent media reports underscore the dead end of mental health as we know it. Despite the prevalence of both psychotherapy and psychiatric medications, emotional conflicts continue to permeate our society: Major mental illness. Anxiety and depression among "functioning" people. Failed relationships, affairs and divorce, despite the prevalence of couples therapy and "relationship-saving" programs. Rampant selfishness, narcissism and short-sighted behavior that drive both personal lives and public policy.

Accumulating research on the role of medications and the power of placebos for depression, anxiety and ADD reveals an absence of evidence for their effectiveness; or worse, that they may alter the brain in harmful ways. For example, new studies undermine the old theory of chemical imbalance as the "cause" of depression. Others show that the placebo effect of drugs is much more profound than previously thought. Prominent researchers are now critiquing the overuse and misuse of psychiatric medications in general, and discussing how they may affect the brain, long-term. And drug treatments for ADD has also been called into question by prominent experts in child development.

The Psychological Impact of Today's World

There's a new world environment that the mental health professions haven't yet recognized. The rapid transformations that have been underway since the new century began eclipse those stemming from the social and economic impact of post-World War II, as well as from the social-cultural upheaval of the '60s. Those had significant impact, certainly, and their residue continues. But in a short span of years, we've experienced the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the financial meltdown of 2008, the gulf oil spill of 2010, the Japanese nuclear disaster, the debt-ceiling debacle and the current euro crisis. Then there's the growing impact of climate change upon national security, food and water supplies. On a more personal level, relationships are in upheaval as marriage declines in relation to cohabitation, same-sex relationships are broadly accepted and people's careers are more unstable than ever.

In short, constant turbulence within a highly interconnected and increasingly transparent world is the new normal. The old view of psychological health doesn't even recognize the impact of current challenges, let alone provide a vision of psychological health in the context of this new normal. It's too stuck within 20th-century thinking.

Ironically, much of the business world is more tuned in to the new realities and how they impact organizations, leadership and people's careers. That perspective offers a better picture of what psychological health consists of today, and what helps build it. For example, a Fast Company report by Robert Safian describes today's business world as an environment of ongoing chaos, uncertainty and disruption. In it, the pace of disruption is increasing, especially from the global adoption of social, mobile and other new technologies. Safian points our that "[In] the road map and model that will define the next era, no credible long-term picture emerges." It will be marked more by "fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm. If there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos."

The New Picture of A Psychologically Healthy Personality

The psychology of those who are able to not only survive but also thrive in the new business environment includes elements that relevant to psychologically health in general. It's overall mindset is what Fast Company describes -- one that embraces instability, that tolerates, even enjoys it. I think it's possible to describe some key themes of psychological health and some of the features that characterize a healthy personality in today's world. Here are some:

  • Being able to step outside of your ego-driven self and view the world from a broader, non-judgmental perspective. Like looking from atop a tall building rather than from standing on the street.

  • An orientation beyond extracting value for yourself, from whatever you're engaged with -- a relationship, your work -- to contributing value to something that's larger than just your self-interest. That includes a focus on contributing to the public good.
  • A highly pro-active orientation that embraces continuous evolution -- growth, new learning and stretching into the unknown, that which lies just beyond what you think you're capable of.
  • These themes lead to a good overall definition of psychological health: A mentality that grows and applies emotional, cognitive, creative and relationship capacities to actions that help sustain and enhance the well-being of all. A mentality based on a realization that all lives on this planet are interconnected and interdependent; a realization and perspective that fuels actions with compassion and empathy.

    From that general picture, some of the specific features of the healthy personality include building, developing and striving towards:

    Self-awareness -- About family issues and conflicts that have remained underground and have shaped and colored your emotions and behavior in undermining, self-handicapping ways.

    Cognitive strengths -- Mental flexibility, especially both linear and non-linear thinking. Both are needed. As entrepreneur strategist John Kao has described, Google and Apple embody two different kinds of strengths, one more linear, data-based and disciplined; the other improvised, non-linear creativity. Both are important capacities for a psychologically healthy life today.

    Positive emotions -- Those that build collaborative, mutually rewarding connections and internal well-being, particularly compassion, empathy, openness and non-defensive acceptance of differences. These are linked with overall health and are capable of self-directed strengthening, via the brain's neuroplasticity.

    Personal values - Conscious embrace of values that promote well-being and growth for the shared human community, rather than exclusionary self-interest oriented values. For example, values concerning "success" in life that are defined less by financial and self-interest criteria and more by contributing to the common good.

    Transparency -- Including exposure and openness about one's actions, motives and agenda rather than seeking to hide or obfuscate, and embracing the positive impact of transparency, which is increasingly transforming public and private life, as Nicholas Kristof recently described in the New York Times.

    Strategic impact -- In your actions, and directed towards a vision of growth, freedom and development of the multiple facets of your being -- emotionally, relationally, creatively, spiritually, physically, intellectually. It includes an eye on the long-term impact of your actions upon future lives that will be affected by your "footprint."

    This is just a sketch of a new picture of psychological health that can retrieve it from the dead zone it now occupies. The challenges of our new world environment contain many dangers of becoming derailed into self-betrayal and stagnation. In future posts I'll describe more about what the features of psychological health draw upon, including known empirical research and the insights of a growing convergence between contemporary science and ancient spiritual perspectives. And I'll offer some ideas about what can help build psychological health in everyday life.

    Meanwhile, I welcome your thoughts and perspectives.

    Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at To learn more about him, click here.

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