The state of public mental wellness and resilience is in crisis. The US Department of Health and Human Services recently issued another warning about the devastating impact of loneliness, isolation and lack of mental well-being at scale and across demographics.
Given the current political divisions and funding short-falls on key social programs, actively moving the state into this role, may sound difficult, but the impact of doing so would be tremendous.
This piece was first published in Policy Options on March 5, 2018.
"Following Oprah’s remarkable speech at this year’s Golden Globe Awards ceremony, there was a frenzy of speculation that she would run for president. A few days later, when she announced she had no intention of doing so (at least at this time), the public disappointment was genuine, vocal and visceral.
At first glance the excitement around the idea of “President Oprah” seems like a natural response to her rousing speech, her decades of global celebrity and the overwhelming desire to find a candidate to defeat the current administration. Oprah is the exact opposite of Trump: a strong, self-made, progressive Black woman who talks about bettering society in a way that makes people feel good about themselves.
But both Oprah and Trump built their public brands on the claim that they have a special knowledge that could improve their viewers’ lives: getting them more money, more health and, always, a better life. Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal, was a self-help manifesto disguised as a business book. Oprah’s entire career — her show, magazine, website and movies — has been about using stories to help people live better lives.
This is the overlooked component in the desire for a President Oprah, the success of President Trump or even the popularity of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (whose leadership style often embodies that of an uplifting coach): more than ever before, people are looking for leaders who seem to have the answers and tools to navigate an increasingly disrupted and overwhelming world. This shift prompts both a growing case and an opportunity for government and policy-makers to step into spaces that were previously considered the realm of the personal.
Massive changes in the economy and in employment (the growth of the gig economy and precarious work) as well as shifting geopolitics and technological disruptions have all contributed to rising rates of anxiety and social dislocation. One result is new and intensified mental, emotional, financial and physical demands on the individual. As data-based research reveals just how detrimental and costly these states of being are, public policy-makers as well as leaders of industry and other sectors must update how they view the relationship between people and their governments.
This new relationship should move away from the “nanny state” model toward something more like a “life coach state,” where governments, universities, hospitals and private organizations work together to improve lives. As governments and individuals increasingly appreciate that psycho-social well-being is not a luxury but a fundamental good, with ripple effects throughout the economy, goals such as building mental wellness, happiness, emotional intelligence and relationship skills and reducing social isolation should be further shifted out of the personal sphere and into the remit of the public sector.
For instance, increased mental well-being provides better outcomes on every metric, including productivity, social cohesion and health. This is one reason why UK Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness, to examine how to systemically tackle the problem; studies show that extreme loneliness has health impacts akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A decade ago, the idea of addressing loneliness in this way would have been laughable, but now there is a growing body of research showing positive results from proactive and deliberate public interventions designed to support people in becoming more emotionally whole, mentally stable and happy.
Here are three of the major reasons why the case for the life coach state is growing.
The first is need. As noted, the world is changing rapidly and dramatically — and the result is that people of all ages and life stages are stressed, anxious and struggling. By all measures, citizens in advanced Western economies — despite living in the richest societies on earth — are afflicted with a mental health and depression epidemic. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults annually.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, one in five Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction issue in any given year; Canada’s youth are also suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and suicide. A 2016 large-scale study tracking Ontario students for the past 20 years found that one-third had moderate to severe symptoms of psychological distress — an increase from two years earlier.
The second argument for the life coach state is that many of the institutions or cultural norms that once provided forms of support — sometimes imperfectly — are themselves being eroded or transformed. For instance, a consistent shared workplace provides a range of emotional, social, happiness and physical benefits along with financial security. But the growing and overwhelming trend is for long-term, place-based employment to be replaced by remote work, freelance gigs and precarious contracts.
Similarly, as more Canadians than ever are living alone, the traditional family unit is also on the decline. Census data show that 28.2 percent of Canadian adults lived alone in 2016. For the first time, this was the most common household type in the country. Updated tools, opportunities and education are needed so that citizens can address the implications that can come with these changes — such as social isolation.
And the third reason for public policy to deliberately step into areas previously considered to be personal matters is the business, economic and public benefit case for doing so. Mental illness, for example, broadly costs the Canadian economy more than $50 billion (in health care, social services and income support), and Canadian businesses lose $6 billion annually as a result of lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover. Considering these data, it makes sense for policy-makers to get behind initiatives and strategies designed to enable Canadians to invest in their mental wellness — even if such programs are outside of the usual forms of treatment such as mindfulness and meditation.
While policy-makers are coming around to this idea, the private sector has been leading on this front by increasingly implementing programs and policies to foster happier and healthier employees. The reason: it helps the bottom line. There is a growing body of research showing that people who have these supports are also significantly more creative, effective, innovative and engaged and take fewer sick days. This is the reason that leading global companies such as Google, Target and General Mills have brought meditation and mindfulness, among other optimal-performance initiatives, into their organizations.
It’s time for public policy to take a similar approach. It is the communities, cities and countries with the most “whole” people that will also have competitive advantages, from more innovative and creative workforces to lower health care costs. Similarly, the societies that devote resources to the programs, policies and public education needed to provide more people with better support will also be safer, more prosperous and cohesive as communities.
The 19th and 20th centuries secured for the citizen a publicly funded education and a social safety net to protect physical health. The 21st century will have to address the very modern problems of mental health and emotional well-being.
A new public policy lens is required, for governments and other leaders in society: it’s one that focuses on creating and fostering the skills, tools and opportunities for people to be better equipped to personally, emotionally and mentally handle a landscape defined by uncertainty, fear, change and disruption. The communities, cities and countries that lead on this will have the advantage, on every indicator of health as well as in social and economic prosperity in the decades ahead.
Ilustration: Shutterstock, by Krista Kennell
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