We can choose happiness, but remember to throw watchful eyes on the behavioral health landscape in these uncertain times.
We’re still unpacking the amazing content, ideas and connections we made last month at NatCon17, the National Council for Behavioral Health annual conference in Seattle – a mind-opening and heart-expanding gathering of about 6,000 people in our field.
Where to begin? We heard Doris Kearns Goodwin tell us her thoughts about the new administration in Washington and the Red Sox; Patrick Kennedy and former Surgeon General David Satcher talked passionately about the parity imperative; and Dr. Vivek Murthy, our Surgeon General whose landmark and pioneering report on addiction in America gives us a blueprint for a compassionate solution, said we must choose happiness; and there was Judy Collins who talked about her own battles with addiction and the loss of her son to suicide. And so many more visionaries.
The final session circled back on that elusive state of happiness the Surgeon General talked about. Shawn Achor, known as the “happiness guy,” helped us wind down from four jam-packed days of overwhelm with his witty and self-deprecating humor. You may have heard of him—TED talks, New York Times best-selling author and lecturer on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard University. Achor has since become one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. He has worked with over a third of the Fortune 100 companies, and with places like the NFL, the Pentagon and the U.S. Treasury. An impressive CV.
A TED talk on choosing happiness to close out a conference chock full of the heavy subjects we in the field struggle with daily was like taking a collective deep breath before heading back out into the world and our work.
Achor explained to us to the science-based evidence that turns conventional wisdom on its head. We’ve always been told that if we work hard we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. If we can just find that great job, win that next promotion, lose those five pounds, happiness will follow. But he says recent discoveries in the field of positive psychology have shown that this formula is actually backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around.
We needed that. And we can’t escape the reasons why. Here's one:
Just after returning from NatCon17, for example, this headline made the rounds last month: “Mental Illness is on the Rise but Access to Care Keeps Dwindling.” A new analysis of Centers for Disease Control data from 10 years of surveys found that more than 8.3 million Americans—or 3.4 percent of the adult population—has a serious mental health condition. Access to professional treatment was measured as well, and it’s not pretty: the number of people whose health insurance did not provide behavioral health treatment is on the rise; pile it on with the glaring shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S., especially in small and rural communities. (Read more about the study.)
And stigma. The data shows that this seemingly intractable barrier prevents people getting the help they need and researchers found that people may self-medicate with substances as a way to manage.
But researchers say there may be a solution: integrating mental health care in primary health settings. The lead study investigator Judith Weissman said: “Mental health doesn’t have parity with physical illness. When a person goes in to get their blood pressure checked, they need to be screened for depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Mental illness needs to be viewed as something as serious as having a stroke or cancer.”
We couldn’t agree more. Awareness and advocacy is what we need. And we know that there are many people working hard out front and behind the scenes to achieve true acceptance and parity around mental health and substance use conditions. We’ll be very happy when that day comes.
Right now, our motto has to be “don’t worry, be vigilant.”