Why did I get interested in mental fitness?


Readers of this blog might be aware that I am writing regularly on the topic of mental fitness.

If you’ll excuse me a short diversion, I want to explain how it is that I came to be interested in this topic in the first place. Inherent in the story are examples of some of the core principles that underlie mental fitness as a concept.

The story begins with me doing my PhD in Psychology here at Flinders.

My PhD was in the area of psychological recovery after a heart attack. I used a randomised controlled trial to test whether a written workbook that dealt with the physical and psychological implications of a heart attack could help individuals improve their psychological wellbeing after the event. I was already at that stage of my career interested in the power of the written word in helping people tackle the challenges of life.

The results of my trial weren’t quite what I wanted. On the positive side, most people in my trial made a strong psychological recovery after their heart attack. Disappointingly, my workbook didn’t accelerate or enhance that in any measurable way. I was disappointed but not too much. That is how science works – you hypothesise something, test it, and see if your hypothesis holds up. Any result is a good result as you learn something from it.

Anyway, so I submitted my PhD and immediately had to start thinking about ‘what next?’. I was broke and needed money so moved pretty much straight away into finding a job. I was very fortunate that a team I had done a placement with during my clinical training had a role for a psychological researcher. I took that role. The area was Youth Mental Health (YMH). I would remain in that area for over 10 years.

I remember my time in YMH fondly. I got to work on some great projects and with some very smart people. Some of my colleagues from YMH remain friends to this day. In the first few years of my work in YMH I felt strongly connected to work, and strongly connected to my profession, psychology.

However, there were some challenges during that period as well. About half-way through that 10-year period, my life got more complex. Personal health issues disrupted my life in a big way. I got stuck in a cycle of health problems –> not engaged with work –> questions about what I was doing with my life –> stress –> health problems. I started to make poor decisions about my health and wellbeing and stopped looking after myself. By 2015/2016, I was pretty flat, feeling disconnected from psychology and not being an active positive force in my own life. I was in a rut.

In 2017, I was shaken out of this rut in what turned out to be the best way possible. My contract in my existing job came to an end and I was essentially forced to choose a new direction for my career. Fate served me up a couple of options. The first was to continue in a related area to where I had been working – Child Welfare. The second was to come to Flinders and head in a very different direction – mental health promotion.

I chose Flinders and am incredibly happy I did. In the role I got to return (in a way at least) to the same challenge that inspired my PhD. Could I help people make significant life improvements through the written word? I got to start a blog, develop handouts, give presentations and explore how to convince people that taking care of themselves is central to building a life worth living. I got to reconnect to my field of psychology by heading back into the literature to understand how one shapes their life to maximise their mental health. I got to revisit what we know in psychology about how people make significant changes in their life.

Coming into this role was simultaneously personally transformative. I started looking after myself better. I made better choices about my health. I realised that what I was writing about to help others was just as (if not more) relevant to me as anyone else. I embraced the possibility of self-improvement.

Reflecting back on my transition into this role, I realised a few things:

  • We’re all ‘works in progress’ meaning we have room for self-improvement. This isn’t about admitting you aren’t good enough. It is about embracing the possibility of being a better version of yourself.
  • That even though the conditions that give rise to psychological wellbeing aren’t necessarily complex to wrap your head around, implementing them in your life can be. This is especially the case if you are already struggling in some way.
  • Psychological wellbeing is built like physical wellbeing (physical fitness) is – healthy habits over time. You don’t necessarily have to make big changes to your life, but you do need to make deliberate investments of time and effort into making ‘smart’ changes in your life. When people want to get physically fit, they add physically healthy habits to their lifestyle – exercise, rest, good nutrition. It turns out when people want to get mentally fit (i.e. happy, productive), they need to add mentally healthy habits to their lifestyle.
  • University is a great time to learn this stuff as you are already embedded in an environment of learning and building a better version of yourself. You also have full access to an incredible knowledge base of books, articles, lecturers, and other students.
  • How powerful a sense of professional belonging can be. When I felt disconnected from my chosen field of psychology, I lost a sense of professional identity. It is important to make specific efforts to be engaged with your topics/field.
  • That having a purpose or job that is bigger than you (e.g. a commitment to helping others, the environment, animals, whatever) can provide meaning and wellbeing in the face of the challenges of daily life.
  • If I learned lessons from my own experiences and combined that with what I knew about the science of wellbeing, I could perhaps provide other people with a map/guide for building productivity, wellbeing and purpose in their lives.

And so, the mental fitness stuff I talk about, and the course I am writing embody these realisations and combine them with what I learn as I head back into the psychological literature and what I learn about the experiences of modern university students.

Working here at Flinders, I’ve learned that students are actively pursuing learning, productivity, wellbeing and meaning at the same time. They want to upskill, do good work, enjoy their time as students and know they are making a difference (or at least feel that what they are learning will help them make a difference in the world).

For some this is a challenge. They might be juggling extensive commitments (e.g. study and work) or they might be dealing with chronic health or mental health problems alongside their studies. International students are dealing with standard student challenges, plus all the challenges of relocation and adjusting to a different culture.

Knowing this, my goal is to give students a map/guide to help them achieve their learning, productivity, wellbeing and meaning goals at the same time. The kind of map/guide that perhaps I would like to have given myself back in 2015/2016. Mental Fitness is that map/guide.

So that is what I am trying to build. A map/guide to building productivity, wellbeing and meaning. I’m constantly working on this guide and you’ll see that take shape on the blog – www.flinders.edu.au/mentalfitness and you might see me around the university talking on the topic. I look forward to connecting with you.

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