Mental health has become a central topic of discussion as reports of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions continue to rise in the United States and around the world. Government, media, corporations, academic institutions, and nonprofits have all made large, though insufficient, commitments to address alarming rates of mental health distress and deaths from despair such as drug overdoses and suicides. Although mental health is often discussed in the context of clinical mental health services, there is growing agreement that simply expanding access to traditional clinical mental health services, such as therapy and psychiatry, will not fully meet the needs of the moment. This is due to a number of factors, including a growing evidence base that community members can be as effective as doctors in providing some forms of mental health support and the inseparability of mental health from other intersections of oppression and injustice.
Meanwhile, the field of social change and innovation is busy with the greatest challenges of our time: our collective pain. Along with the communities we serve, those of us who work for social change are witnessing the day-to-day realities of poverty, injustice, violence, marginalization and climate disruption. Many of us find ourselves on the front lines of crisis response, often torn between immediate relief priorities and long-term reforms. Existing narratives such as martyrdom, hero entrepreneurship, and scarcity of resources cloud our efforts to work with great courage without excluding and exploiting ourselves. It’s no wonder that burnout narratives prevail, and that countless social impact leaders, despite their immense talent and sense of purpose, eventually drift away from the mission for good.
If mental health ultimately allows us to navigate life’s hardships toward a sense of growth and contribution, then it is central to social change, which exists at the intersection of our collective pain and our collective freedom. And if large swathes of the population are to experience the liberating possibilities of mental health and healing, then they cannot be left alone in the domain of the formal mental health system. To make a lasting impact and experience much-needed collective healing, mental health must be integrated into our worlds of social change.
This is not only necessary, but possible. Through our shared community of social innovators in the Catalyst 2030 Mental Health Collaboration and at our organizations, Brio and Mental Health America, we have witnessed the wonderful possibilities and outcomes of integrating mental health into social change work. As a collective of entrepreneurs and social professionals, the Mental Health Collaboration seeks to accelerate innovation in global mental health as a means to more effectively and inclusively achieve major social and environmental impact.
Mental health as a resource for change
The critical role that mental health plays in achieving meaningful social change begins with the core of what mental health is really about. While poor mental health can hinder a person’s or community’s ability to take full advantage of the possibilities before them, positive mental health can enable individuals and communities to lead and realize their vision of prosperity. As a vitalizing internal resource, mental health can sustain the longevity of any social change that requires sustained commitment and effort from the people involved.
Incorporating mental health into our worlds of social change also helps us create workplace cultures that do not harm the path to doing good. As we work to change communities and structures, we often struggle with the beliefs and barriers that result from those norms and systems within ourselves and our efforts. Whether it’s witnessing trauma and pain, glorifying overwork, failing to create opportunities for authentic connection, or ignoring our own well-being, we may unintentionally recreate or fail to address difficulties in the ways we interact with each other, making it less likely that we and our efforts will be sustainable.
The good news is that there are many paths to mainstreaming mental health as a key ingredient for lasting social impact. Throughout this series, industry transformers will join us to share in-depth case studies of how leaders and innovators both inside and outside the United States are leveraging mental health to drive social change. These diverse perspectives offer wisdom to enrich our conversations about the power of mental health to increase impact in four critical areas of social change: climate, peacebuilding, gender, and the workplace.
How to cultivate mental health in your world of social change
To foster a future where people and planet thrive, we need more leaders and teams to integrate mental health and social change. While this process takes time, we believe there is strength in simply taking a step forward. Here are four key practices, which we will explore in more depth throughout this series.
1. Reimagine yourself as a member of the mental health ecosystem and build a community of mutual support.
Meaningful changes are possible when we recognize that mental health and healing is the domain of all of us, not just mental health professionals. Having a basic understanding of how ill mental health affects our communities can inform the posture and pace at which we work, how we define success and the importance of collective participation in the healing process. Simply start by learning the effects of trauma and how best to accompany others; then familiarize yourself with local resources and supports where available.
In an upcoming article on the power of mental health to advance peacebuilding, Glasswing International’s Celina De Sola will share critical mindset shifts for working with vulnerable populations, important ways to reflect on the impact of mental health and trauma on our work and on how to become informed advocates for mental health in the communities we serve.
2. Honor the emotional and mental impact of the difficult realities we face.
Emotional responses, whether sadness, frustration, or anger, are valid and appropriate responses to experiencing and addressing injustice in social change work. While these feelings are often what inspires us to action, it’s also important to create spaces where we can process and validate these emotions as they arise. Offering open dialogue, spaces for art, mental health education, or support groups can help us honor our experiences instead of ignoring the emotional and mental impact that can aggravate and create exhaustion over time.
In an upcoming article on the intersections of the mental health and climate movements, mental health experts Lian Zeitz and John Jamir Benzon Aruta will join us to discuss how to address suffering on a large scale, address moral crises, and create intergenerational spaces for a long time. term change and healing.
3. Provide opportunities for connection and support rooted in shared experiences.
Getting support from people we identify with can be healthy and show us that we are not alone. These relationships and interactions provide us with opportunities to be inspired and supported by people we feel understand us and our experiences best. In addition to broader mental health resources, we can prioritize and offer spaces and initiatives for people to connect with each other around shared experiences.
In an article focusing on mental health and gender, Dr. Rukudzo Mwamuka will help us explore how leaders, especially those in communities historically excluded from mental health services and initiatives, can promote wellbeing by revealing their experiences with mental health and tailoring resources to reflect the needs of their communities.
4. Promote a shared language around mental and emotional experiences to build a culture of empathy.
Empathic relationships at work are critical to sustaining mental health and begin with awareness of self and others. While many of us are experts in the vocabulary of our industry, chances are we can improve our vocabulary related to our mental and emotional experiences. We can start by simply acknowledging and naming the wide range of inner realities perceived by colleagues and team members in the context of the work itself. Sometimes this is as simple as learning to use words that describe our thoughts, emotions, and sensations as part of our present-moment experience; it can also mean developing better skills for knowing what to listen to if a colleague is struggling.
In our final article, Bearapy founder Enoch Li will write about how to defuse stigma, align mental health with values, and gradually shift workplace culture toward support and wellbeing.
The cost and promise of mental health in social change
Without a significant increase in mental health awareness, promotion and support, our world of social change will fail to fully realize the wide range of possibilities that we urgently need. And without meaningful integration of mental health across programs and sectors, we resign ourselves to a system that is insufficient to cater for all of us.
Integrating mental health into our worlds of social change may seem complex, but there are many possible paths forward. This series features stories and lessons from social innovators who have proven that mental health is worth the investment to make the impact we want to see in the world. For social change funders and advocates, we hope you’ll consider how the inclusion of mental health can amplify the resilience of the work you currently support. And for those with us in the trenches of social change, we hope these recommendations don’t become just another thing on your long to-do list, but rather accessible steps toward greater healing and freedom in the context of your important social mission.
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