Last month (May) was Mental Health Awareness month. Mental health is a topic that pokes up in the media every once in a while, perhaps most prominently with the recent Germanwings crash that involved a pilot with a purported mental illness intentionally crashing his plane into a mountain, killing all passengers and crew. Naturally after events and others like it (such as when someone goes on a shooting spree, which we seem to get more than our fair share of here in the US) the conversation within the media and around the country shifts to talking about how we identify and treat people with mental illness. Naturally the focus, just like the focus following an accident, is on negatives. Blame the mentally ill person. Blame the psychiatrists. Blame the gun lobby. Blame the health insurance lobby. Blame the drug lobby. At some point, through the noise, we start talking about how we can prevent these things from happening again. Just like with accidents the discussion shifts toward the find and fix mentality – find those with mental illness and make them feel better.
Mental health is a topic of particular interest to me, not only because of my interest in social science, but for personal reasons as well. My wife has been diagnosed with treatment-resistant major depression and has struggled with suicidality herself for almost the entirety of our 12 year marriage. This has been an immense and exhausting challenge for us. She goes to therapy and takes medications and definitely seems to be making progress. In the past year in particular she has made a number of breakthroughs that have really moved her through her depression, made her take suicide “off the table” (to use her words), and have given her strength to be hopeful again.
But imagine our surprise when we started to see a world on the other side of her mental illness, only to find emptiness. You see, many people have the conception that if someone is depressed, all you have to do is remove the depression and everything will be right again. That mental health is a sort of see saw – when depression goes down, happiness and fulfillment naturally go up. But that’s simply not true. You remove the depression and you leave a vacuum, waiting to be filled.
This highlights an intensely flawed strategy in our approach to mental health – we are inherently reactive, focusing only on reducing negatives. Sound familiar to our traditional approach to safety? But, as in safety, this approach may be inherently limiting at best, and terribly harmful at worst. Just like physical health is more than removing physical illness, mental health is more than removing mental illness.
So my wife and I have searched for ways to fill the void that her retreating illness has left. We are still working on it, but one thing that has helped us is to focus on building an environment that meets some of her psychological needs. For example, one theory of psychological needs posits that people inherently have three needs – competence, autonomy, and relatedness. By working to help people achieve those needs we may be able to increase happiness, fulfillment, and even, in the case of work, productivity.
Reflecting on the exploration my wife and I have undertaken, it occurred to me that if the theories of psychological needs are to be believed, perhaps the old models of management that rely on command and control methodologies may be causing more unseen harm than we first thought. Taylorism is based on the assumption of a lack of line worker competence, and therefore works to remove autonomy. This inherently draws lines within the organization that creates dissention and reduces a person’s ability to relate to others in the organization. Not only would this create the conditions for drift to exist, but it may cause significant harm to an individual’s mental health.
Our workers do not live in a safety vacuum. Perhaps it’s time we reflect on the effect what do and do not do in our workplaces effects the mental health of our workers. Consider how the inclusion or exclusion of employees in problem identification and solving in the workplace may work to build or reduce a sense of autonomy and competence. Or how managers and safety professionals getting into the workplace more often to simply have conversations with workers may build a relationship that not only helps us identify gaps between work-as-imagined and work-as-performed, but may benefit all of our mental health. There may also be reciprocal relationships as well between fostering mental health and safety. Building environments that facilitate the meeting of psychological needs may enhance the development of expertise and communication, which often are positively correlated with safety performance.
For my wife, this focus on building a life through helping her meet psychological needs has proven itself effective. We still have our struggles, but now, when she slips into a depression or even anxiety, our focus is not just on what we’re moving from, but what she’s moving toward – building competence, autonomy, and relatedness. As safety professionals, we may not be able to change society enough (yet) to change the media focus on negatives following an event involving mental illness. But we can change how we look at mental health in our lives and in our organizations by looking at what we want more of, not just on what we want less of. In this we may break the cycle of reacting to mental illness, a cycle that leads to stigma and more mental illness, and instead create an environment that fosters wholeness.