Here is what the time working on Tiramisu, through a pandemic, and the conversations I had along the way taught me about mental health:
What I learned
1- Mental health is part of a larger context.
Mental health is not a standalone topic. Our brain structures and thinking patterns are extremely complex – and omnipresent.
“Everything we’re doing is going to shape the brain that we have based on how we use it every day.” – Dr Julie Fratantoni
And even then, we cannot really separate our brain health from our overall (or physical) health as we often do. Studies show that the lack of social relationships is as deadly as smoking and alcohol consumption, and trumps the risk of lacking physical activity or obesity.
2- Mental health conversations focus a lot on treatment, not prevention.
When we talk about Tiramisu in a mental health context, we often hear that we are “not really doing anything about mental health” – which is true. We are not treating severe conditions, do not have a cure for anxiety or PTSD, and for sure cannot prevent suicide for anyone who made up their mind that their life is not worth living. At the same time, we very much know that decreasing loneliness and building genuine social engagement is a key to preventing mental health issues in the first place.
And this is exactly a key learning we came to: when we talk about mental health, we do not talk about “health”, we talk about “disease”. It is something quite common in medicine in general, where much of the conversation rests on treatment of identifiable symptoms.
”The majority of research and a lot of work around the brain waits until there’s disease or injury to really address it as opposed to being proactive.” Dr Julie Fratantoni
The other side of that story is that the vagueness of mental health as a term often minimizes the experience of those with severe conditions that really require treatment and care.
A key question that formed in my head: How can we, without in any way minimizing the struggles of those deeply affected, put a bit more of our attention on preventing issues in the first place, rather than just treating them once they occur?
3- Technology and social media to date are not optimized for mental health.
Social Dilemma. Photo credit: Netflix.com
The last two years created an open love-hate relationship with technology and social media for many people, including myself. I grew increasingly tired of screens but they were also a lifeline to the outside world and to (what feels like) human connection. At the same time, addictive features were gobbling up large chunks of my time.
Those addictive application features are affecting our mental health. They are designed to keep everyone glued to their screens – to watch more ads and thereby increase profit for the company that owns the platform.
On a personal level, creating content that is most liked and picked up well by the algorithms leads us to optimize for perfection – which in turn makes everyone else feel inadequate and bad.
In this case, algorithms dictate social behaviour. Which leads me to the question: Have we really put sufficient thought into the fact that growing up with these behavioural patterns, and using them for a prolonged time frame, is actually changing our social behaviour? Do we really know what the implications are? And were they really built for that purpose?
On the other hand, those same platforms hold powerful spaces for more open conversations, and help especially those lacking representation to find community and relatable stories – and to raise their own voice.
Our relationship status with social media to date: It’s complicated.
“It contains a lot of bad, it can harm your mental health, but when used correctly, it can really be a youth tool for self expression.” Emma Lembke
4- Societal and cultural norms can do additional damage.
By now, the expectations to be “always on” are deeply rooted in our cultures.
For teens, this mostly means peer pressure: when everyone is connecting and talking on social media, missing out is a risk not many are willing to take.
For adults, much of the pressure comes from workplace culture, and working from home has blurred the lines between work and leisure.
And contrary to other health issues, mental health is still a taboo – trickling down all the way from society at large to workplaces, families and even groups of friends.
In many contexts, a lot of our hesitancy to open up has to do with the same topic I touched upon earlier: we want to show strength and perfection, not weakness. But opening up requires vulnerability, which Brené Brown defines as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. As those are really hard, the default is to stay silent.
The danger of taboos is that they even turn a struggling majority into an assortment of individuals that feel lonely and inadequate, even though their experience is essentially comparable. And the outcome of those feelings is a vicious cycle of declining mental health for everyone.
5- Stories and shared experiences form a major part of (personal and collective) healing.
Stories are one of the most powerful ways in overcoming taboos. They help us to look over boundaries and connect to someone else’s experience at an emotional level. And most importantly, they make both the narrator and the listener going through a related experience aware that they are not alone, and indeed part of a larger community. This way, they play a major role in reflection and healing for both sides.
“It’s not the actual context of the story that makes us human. It is the emotional side.” – Jimmy Westerheim
Photo credit: TheHumanAspect.com
What we need
1- Create better metrics and measures for mental health
Mental health and wellbeing are difficult to measure, and there is not (yet) one commonly accepted way to do it. That makes it hard to compare approaches and truly understand what works. We desperately need common measures that help to evaluate approaches, create benchmarks and transparency, and drive action. And we need to understand those measures in the larger context of brain health, and health overall.
The next step is then to use those metrics to hold technology accountable – and with that, change the way companies are steered.
Because let’s face it: If we measure the success of a company on profit and profit only, can we really be surprised that the company optimizes for profit? Can we make something important as health just dependent on the integrity of decision makers “doing the right thing”? I don’t think so.
2- Design for wellbeing and prioritize human connection
Technology, essentially, is really great at optimizing processes for the outcomes we are looking for. Profit maximization has shown us just how well this can work. So what if we would use the same mechanisms to optimize for wellbeing? Applications can help to optimize for increased focus and attention, better brain health, and quality social connections – if we build them for that purpose.
“One thing that I’ve really noticed is that we need to reroute the term connectivity and we need to prioritize human connection.” – Emma Lembke
3- Share knowledge to create agency
Making healthy choices requires getting the full context. If the mental health implications of our actions, and of the tools and technologies we use, would be more commonly understood, it would definitely help us to make better decisions. But that context alone is not enough: the necessary next step is to actually make it easier for everyone to make better choices.
4- Share stories and create kinder cultures to overcome taboos
As sharing stories is such a powerful tool for healing and acceptance, we absolutely need more of those. But the hardest thing here is taking the first step.
“Oftentimes the things that prevent us from telling our stories are those emotions of shame and embarrassment and to unpack those emotions takes quite some time.” Huyen Kiki Vo
So while we need to understand and accept that this process takes time, we can also actively create cultures and communities that make it easier to share, and to be vulnerable without fear of repercussions and judgement. Essentially, those are cultures that prioritize kindness and acceptance.
5- Make sure that those affected get a chance to speak – and take part in decision making
The other thing we desperately need is positive role models – those brave people that go out in the world and fearlessly tell their tales for the betterment of all. And because identifying with those role models is a key element of both creating more open cultures and personal healing, representation matters. And it matters not only in role models, but also in decision making. We cannot make choices on behalf of youth, minority groups, vulnerable groups and those affected by serious mental health conditions without including those groups in the conversation, especially when we talk about their mental health. Being heard is indeed one crucial and important part of the healing process. Being part of decision making and solution building ensures that those solutions actually work.
The quotes in this article are from the 2 previous Tiramisu Talks: