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

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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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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