Their View | Preventing Mental Illness: Learning about the self is the number one protective factor

The research is conclusive and compelling that self-knowledge is the No. 1 protective factor for children’s mental health and a positive life-course trajectory.

If self-knowledge is such an important factor in empowering people of all ages to a great life, why don’t we teach it to more people in more places, through our most trusted institutions?

The silence from our schools, universities and health care organizations is deafening. Once again, our health care system is based on assumptions of treating the acute symptoms, not on preventing these in the first place.

The question parents, health care practitioners, educators and health and education policymakers should be asking is: How do we create people who are emotionally, psychologically and physically well?

A state of well-being consists of happiness, finding meaning, contributing to others, ability to form deep and meaningful relationships, cultivating unique talents and the energy and motivation to accomplish.

For too many — 80 percent, according to a recent research study I conducted — daily living experiences are not good ones; they are filled with psychological and physical unease that manifests itself in numerous health-related illnesses.

San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge found that five times as many high school and college students are dealing with “anxiety” and other mental health issues as youth studied in the Great Depression era.

About 20 percent experience depression before they reach adulthood, and 29 percent of adolescents in grades nine-12 report feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for an extended period, interfering with their ability to do school work or attend school.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that states with high depression rates also have higher than average rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

Paul Kettlewell, a researcher and behavioral health clinician at Geisinger Health System, found that 10 to 20 percent of pediatric patients have serious behavioral health symptoms.

Through more comprehensive mental and physical well-being education, we can do a much better job preventing mental and physical illness.

To appropriately honor Mental Health Awareness week (the first week in October), doesn’t it make sense to create a learning-based integrated health care system that prioritizes individual needs instead of waiting for acute symptoms such as depression or anxiety to manifest?

Shouldn’t we be imparting personal, self-knowledge competencies that develop the strengths of each person and dedicate resources to ensure people of all ages are learning in accordance with their personalized well-being plan? All this is possible, yet the current paradigm of health care does not allow for new methods that place people and their well-being at the center of their health futures.

Penn State psychology of well-being professor Frederick Brown offers a possible tool to help people take control of their well-being futures, asserting that the “Integrated Self or iSelf model emerges from the interaction of current scientific information about the direct influence by emotions, both positive and negative, upon cognitive functioning. These emotions, in turn, are based upon personal relevancy and meaningfulness and are the controlling switch by which effective learning takes place or not. A positive emotional approach facilitates a sense of well-being that, in turn, enhances a willingness to learn.”

What is often missing in people who experience mental illness is the ability to take a deeper look at the inner self, to know who they are and want to become. Therefore, the focus of a personalized well-being plan should be on each person’s needs across all domains: social, emotional, physical and psychological.

A personalized well-being plan teaches people the importance of understanding their own hopes and dreams in life, enabling them academically, professionally and socially to become the types of people they aspire to be with all the self-attributions they have and would like to develop.

Our most trusted institutions responsible for improving well-being outcomes — including schools, universities and health care providers — are stuck in a 19th century mind-set, reacting to illnesses after the fact.

A 21st century health care system and mindset focus on preventing illness in the first place, given the myriad research to support broad-spectrum approaches.

We can do better with a new approach and mindset.