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Can Language Save Us, As Depression Becomes The No.1 Health Risk For Humans?

Depression is now the leading cause of ill health, with 300 million sufferers worldwide.Photo by Barney Moss/flickr.com/CC BY2.0

What’s the biggest cause of ill health and disability in 2018? If it wasn’t for this article’s headline you might be forgiven for thinking that our number one health risk was a physical condition, rather than an emotional one. But, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organisation, depression is at the top of the league table, with more than 300 million sufferers worldwide. And it’s seen a startling increase of more than 18% from 2005 to 2015.

For decades, the mainstream media has been focussed on efforts to head off major physical health risks and the need for improved physical health through proactive habits. So, we’re all very clear about the need for regular exercise and balanced nutrition to help us lead longer, healthier lives. This has been one of the key drivers for the multi-billion dollar health and fitness industry, shaping countless fitness trends and the brands that benefit from them.

We can easily list countless sportswear brands and the celebrities who endorse them. There’s a dizzying array of health clubs and gyms in our towns and cities. And clothing originally designed for exercise has become perfectly acceptable as day-to-day wear.

Now that we’re faced collectively with this emotional condition as our number one health risk, it’s worth looking back for parallels with how we’ve developed our culture in the physical health spectrum under the threat of major physical health risks.

The birth of exercise

In ancient China, a variety of body movement exercises were practiced for good health and to prevent disease. And, in ancient Greece and Rome, gymnasiums and places to exercise and cleanse were part of everyday life.

Fast-forward to 1927 when the United States entered the First World War. The data collected showed that one out of every three draftees was unfit for combat. Legislation was passed to improve physical education programs within schools. Although this concern was short-lived, as the United States entered the Great Depression in 1929.

A similar situation, with a nation unfit to fight, was discovered when the US entered the Second World War. During the 1950s, various organizations took the initiative in educating the public about the consequences of low levels of physical fitness.

The rise and rise of attractive physical health culture

Exercise fads and fashions came and went in the Western World during the first half of the 20th century. But we have to look to the 1960s for the arrival of commercial, mass-participation forms of exercise with the birth of aerobics, an Olympic inspired running boom and the founding of Gold’s Gym.

In the 1970s Arnold Schwarzenegger and his contemporaries began to inspire body-building and shaping and, in 1982, Jane Fonda brought her own brand of aerobic workout into the homes of anyone who had a VCR.

Physical fitness culture was firmly in the mainstream and here to stay. Since then the fitness fads and fashions have changed at a dizzying rate from step classes, Jazzercise and aqua-aerobics to machine and bodyweight fitness and today’s HIIT regimes.

Global revenue in the fitness sector is on target to reach US$15,636 million in 2018 with a 5% growth forecast each year as the human race seeks to stay fit, healthy and chase their ideal body image.

The proactive and positive language of physical fitness culture

With the rise of fitness brands and chains and their advertising campaigns via mass communication, the language of physical fitness culture quickly developed and spread.

Its lexicon promises us a better life, a healthy body, rippling muscles, tight abs, shapely thighs, toned calves, longer life, improved looks, increased strength and flexibility, calories burned, smaller clothing sizes, bikini-bodies and glowing skin.

It’s important to note that the language surrounding the proactive side of the physical spectrum isn’t focussed on fixing or avoiding major physical problems, but instead on better health, looks and improved physical performance. Gym memberships don’t sell with slogans such as avoid kidney failure. They’re positive and proactive in nature. Get fit, pump your muscles, strengthen your body, detoxify your organs, get healthy, feel great and, of course, Just Do It.

The reactive and negative language of the mental health spectrum

For much of our history, mental health has often been a taboo topic of conversation and the subject of society’s fear and stigma. And, when we’re actually brave enough to talk about the issues surrounding mental health, the language we use is likely to be focused on fixing a problem or curing an illness.

And, it’s little surprise that this negative stance has often gone hand-in-hand with a lack of care and support for those with mental and emotional health disorders, preventing many from accessing the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives.

What if, as a society, we could talk openly about mental health and also develop the same positive, proactive and goal-based lexicon that we’ve adopted for when we talk about physical health.

Making our mental health a positive daily habit

Instead of seeing mental health as something to be cured, what if society could embrace positive mental health habits as part of our daily routine and to talk about them in such terms.

What if we could get emotionally fit, openly express our feelings, pump our emotional muscles, strengthen our hearts and minds, detoxify our memories, enjoy our daily emotional exercise routine, become mentally healthy, practice positive communication, mindfully share our thoughts and so on.

The language we use plays a major role in defining who we are, shaping our attitudes and defining our cultural ideals. Words have the power to spread beliefs and fuel new ideas that can bring positive change to the way we choose to live.

What if we could embrace positive mental health habits as part of our daily routine.Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

The next major health revolution is upon us

We can take heart from the fact that the physical health revolution was energized in recent decades as science proved the value of exercise and balanced nutrition. And now, it’s just common knowledge that it’s good to look after our bodies. Right now, meditation and mindfulness are where physical exercise was, several decades ago. The research has begun and, as a result of the science, meditation and mindfulness are now beginning to be embraced by everyone from executives and athletes to US Marines and the person in the street.

We’re seeing positive early signs with the success of meditation apps and the rise of mindfulness as a mainstream pursuit. Headspace has led the way in demystifying meditation for millions of users, bringing mindfulness into the mainstream and, crucially, talking about mental health in proactive and positive terms. We’re told that the Headspace mission is to improve the health and happiness of the world. And that, by meditating, we can achieve more, stay more focused and feel more relaxed because ‘brilliant things happen in calm minds’.

10% Happier, the book and mindfulness meditation course from Dan Harris, takes a pragmatic approach with its down-to-earth language that brings meditation and mindfulness even more into the mainstream. It promises to help you feel happier, sleep better and tame the voice in your head, thus improving relationships, work and health.

What these and other apps are doing is to be applauded. They demystify mental health exercises and make them accessible to the masses while employing language that’s positive, proactive and simple. They remove polarising spiritual principles and promote these exercises as an attractive, secular part of a healthy daily routine. They also support independent scientific research studies to prove their own worth.

Let’s talk about emotional and mental health as a form of fitness

If we’re to face the growing epidemic of depression, and do more to tackle the number one global health risk, then we’d do well to change our language surrounding mental and emotional health, just as the physical health spectrum has done. We need to talk about emotional health and mental fitness in positive and proactive terms, shifting the spectrum from the reactive to the proactive and making new emotional exercise habits both attractive and essential to everyday life.

The science is already proving that mindfulness and meditation have a broad range of measurable physical, mental and emotional benefits, which is hardly surprising when you consider the enormous power and complexity of the human brain and body.

What other daily habits can we embrace to further this move towards proactively looking after our mental and emotional fitness and health? And what language can we use to describe them?

When describing our mental health and the actions and exercises we’ll use to its benefit, let’s be more aware of the effect negative language has on our motivation and efforts and start promoting the positive and proactive, borrowing the best of what we’ve learned from the physical health and fitness world.

One thing’s for sure, when we’re collectively faced with a global health risk, we adapt and together we change. We’ve proven this in the physical health spectrum. Now it’s time to put our heads together again, to lean on technology and to develop a powerfully positive stance with our language, towards a more emotionally fit, happier and healthier human race.

Article source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickbennett1/2018/10/22/can-language-save-us-as-depression-becomes-the-no-1-health-risk-for-humans/