Mental health is a measure of success, not a reason for politicians to grin | Martha Gill

TThere is more to life than just money, but societies can struggle to express this. When we talk about the state of nations and their citizens, we tend to boil it down to a few economic indicators. These can tell us a lot, but they don’t tell us everything. The pristine stretch of ancient forest, the arts in education, the close-knit community, the healthy childhood: there are plenty of valuable things that can’t always be weighed on this scale.

And this is a problem, especially for people who want to keep valuables. Here’s a rule of thumb: if you can’t measure how much something is worth, it becomes difficult to protect it. Those who don’t want to see a clock forest destroyed or another humanities subject dumped may find it difficult to argue their position against the cold logic of pounds and pence. What standard can they use to be taken seriously?

It’s not just activists for whom this is a problem. Governments have long flirted with the idea of ​​an alternative to GDP, a way to capture what really matters to citizens. A “happiness index‘ was once a fashionable idea, but has proven to be too limited and ambiguous. People often misunderstood what was asked in surveys – happiness can be difficult to determine. How do you weigh pleasure against satisfaction? What about the meaning?

But I wonder if a solution has presented itself in recent years, almost without us noticing. Little by little, a more robust, better proven and more widely applicable unit of value has emerged in public life: that of mental health care. We all use it already.

Is it good for your mental health? This is the question by which increasing parts of our lives are judged. The language of psychology has spread to encompass almost all human activities, from the quality of our workplaces, to the condition of teenagers, to the way we spend our free time, to the way we interact with our friends. If politicians are looking for a new way to measure what matters to us, all they have to do is open their ears.

Take the simple hobby for example. People no longer just go for walks, watch birds, adopt a pet or learn to bake cakes. Instead, they discover a form of self-care that conquers their fear, changes their lives, or saves their marriage. This is what we are striving for now, in our spare time: a radical overhaul of our mental health. Just look at the books hobbyists write recently. Sample: Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life; Thirty thousand steps: a memoir of sprinting there Life after loss; Dinner for example: how cooking in Paris saved me.

The arts are also increasingly seen as tools for well-being. Why invest in one gallery pass? It’s good for your mental health. Why pick up an instrument or learn to paint? It’s good for your mental health. Where art was once dedicated to the glory of God, it is now placed on the altar of mental well-being, which may well be the religion of our secular age. (The Archbishop of Canterbury once lamented that Christ had become the savior Christ the Counselor.)

Even fictional characters are judged for their mental health these days. The writer Parul Sehgal has described the rise of the trauma plot, which “directs our curiosity not to the future (will they or not?) but back to the past (what happened to her?).” And we also do this with real characters. Channel 4 is recent The rise and fall of Boris Johnson is one in a long line of investigations into the former prime minister that attempts to locate his future actions somewhere in his childhood. Tabloids filled their pages with claims about what gives you cancer (intermittent fasting, red wine, hot tea) or helps prevent it (intermittent fasting, red wine, hot tea). Now the story is well-being. What helps? What hinders?

Now it’s easy to make fun of this, and plenty do. Many feel put off by the spread of this newfangled language and what they see as the co-optation of common sense. (Whatever happened to just going for a swim or seeing your friends? Isn’t this “mental health” stuff all pretty obvious?) This skepticism was likely the basis for a burgeoning culture war launched last week by Rishi Sunak, who announced a plan to revoke disability benefits from some people with mental illnesses, in an effort to tackle the “overmedicalization of life’s daily challenges.”

But these critics – and that solution – are seriously missing the point. Learning more about our mental health, what helps and what doesn’t, is actually quite useful. This knowledge was once reserved for academics and those who could afford therapy; now anyone can get their hands on it.

This can only be a good thing. The evidence base may not be complete, but it is heavy and continually increasing. The solution to ‘over-medicalization’ is certainly not to sideline those in need, but to continue to improve our understanding of mental health. Nor should we assume that complex large-scale societies always move in a healthy ‘healthy’ direction; it’s new mental health research that’s leading us back to “common sense” practices – seeing your friends more often, going for a swim – that we were in danger of abandoning in the past.

If we want an alternative unit of value by which to judge and direct a society, we may underperform the mental health of its citizens. In a sense, we have already adopted it. Despite Sunak’s stance, mental health care is a powerful political tool. Only recently did he launch a crackdown on mobile phones in schools, saying they are damaging children’s mental health.

The impact on mental health is why we are here take loneliness seriously. It is the benchmark by which we increasingly judge workplaces; the government has previously urged employers to improve support. It’s the justification for it the preservation of green spaces and, increasingly, for take care of the environment in the first place. We already measure ourselves by our mental health. Time to take advantage of that.

Martha Gill is an Observer columnist