Protecting Your Mental Health In An Unequal World

This year’s World Mental Health Day on 10th October focuses on ‘mental health in an unequal world’. We know that many of you who read this blog dedicate much of your life to reducing inequality, and so we asked our Psychosocial experts BEN PORTER and LIZ PYCROFT to explain how this inequality can impact you, and how you can take better care for yourself.

Inequality has a direct impact on mental ill health. And whether this inequality is social, financial or political, it is often made worse by unequal access to mental health services. For example 75% – 95% of people with mental disorders in low and middle-income countries are unable to access mental health services at all.

Many of you that we support at Thrive work to reduce these inequalities. Sometimes you have great success. At other times it’s hard to see any progress. Often this can leave you feeling powerless – a feeling made worse if you work closely with those most affected by the inequality. 

We’ve seen this recently from stories we’ve heard about evacuations from Afghanistan, which have highlighted the anxiety and guilt that many have felt in being unable to keep people safe.  

When we feel a level of responsibility for situations like these – situations which might violate our deeply held values – it impacts on our psychosocial health. Military Psychology has long used the term “moral injury” to describe the feelings of shame and helplessness that result from situations like this. And these feelings can have hard-hitting, often existential consequences. It can change our self-perception. It can also lead us to adopt unhelpful coping strategies such as substance misuse, social withdrawal, or self-destructive acts

Are you taking on more responsibility for others than is helpful?”

And more generally, in the struggle against inequality we may feel an imbalance between effort and reward. This can lead to fatigue or even burnout (which the Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer describes as “violating my own nature in the name of nobility”).

It can also be important to remember that inequalities are not all ‘out there in the field’. Our industry still has a long way to go in tackling them within our organisations too. At Thrive we work with people whose wellbeing is affected by what they experience as unequal opportunities in this sector based on their ethnicity, race or gender. The sector is tackling these inequalities and talking about diversity, and we encourage individuals and teams to be part of this conversation. 

For a team to thrive, all of its members should be respected, valued and treated fairly. This has a significant effect on an individual’s sense of wellbeing and motivation, even when working in challenging environments. And so we must be able to do internally what we purport to do externally – it is vitally important to create a culture of safety, where issues of inequality can be talked about and actioned.

So inequality is all around us. How then do we keep ourselves well, and find balance, as we work in an unequal world? When does our motivation to fight injustice go from being something that makes us resilient, and turn into something that depletes our energy? And how do we maintain a sense of ‘self’ in a sector which has its own inequalities and may not value our contribution? Here are some suggestions:

  • Create good boundaries. Look out for patterns of behaviour that ‘overextend’ yourself. These are often reinforced by habits of thought that may compel you to overextend. Consider establishing boundaries, and follow them even if they make you uncomfortable. This may mean closing your computer at 6pm, or it may mean saying “no” to an interesting new project.
  • Be self-aware. Think about times you have been treated unequally, and how it shaped the way you see yourself in the world. Are you working to resolve a feeling of powerlessness from past experiences? Are you taking on more responsibility for others than is helpful?
  • Be in the moment. Make some achievable goals and acknowledge successes, however small. If you find yourself worrying about the future, step back and think about what you can do to make today a good day.
  • Acknowledge feelings. There is good cause in the world for being upset, angry and infuriated! Avoiding or minimising these feelings only displaces them. It is inauthentic. But do also remember that anger drains your energy, and you need that energy to stay in the fight.
  • Find support. If fighting inequality and injustice has compromised your mental health, made relationships challenging, or impaired your ability to work well, then consider finding professional support to help to reorient and find ways to stay resilient. Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis – proactive support is much more effective in making positive and sustainable change.