Armed with ten thousand postcards with happy smiling faces printed on them, a team of counsellors, psychosocial workers and I are hitting the streets of the Jaffna, Sri Lanka on a busy Wednesday morning. Our aim is to raise awareness about positive mental health and wellbeing. Today is World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2012, an annual event aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues, which affects one in ten people across the globe according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. And the fact is that anyone can get a mental illness, no matter their gender, education level or economic status. This year’s specific focus is on depression – a very common mental disorder that can have severe consequences, but can also be successfully treated. According to the WHO, by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of world disability and by 2030, it is expected to be the largest contributor to disease burden.
I suspect that after nearly thirty years of conflict and a tsunami, communities from the North and East of Sri Lanka have a higher rate of mental health problems than one in ten. These communities need alternative, easy-to-access ways of supporting their wellbeing and their future resilience, beyond the traditional approaches of counselling or medication. In a community where depression, apathy, hopelessness, lack of initiation and physical fatigue are the frequent ‘ailments’ seen by our counsellors and psychosocial workers, it is important to look for a broader range of ‘tools’- simple, practical activities that can help support those who don’t need acute mental health care. So for this occasion, we have decided to borrow some from the world of positive psychology. This growing, popular branch of psychology looks closely at people’s strengths and assets rather than focusing on the problems or issues they are facing, helping to increase and sustain their wellbeing.
Back on the streets of Jaffna, dodging the trishaws, motorbikes, cycles and cows, our postcards are given to anyone and everyone as we walk along, as part of my “I am very happy to be me…” campaign. People are asked to simply fill in the back of the postcard, completing the following sentence “I am very happy to be me because……” and state three positive things either around you, about you, or that happened to you that day. The aim is to help the recipients develop their own wellbeing and positive mental health by highlighting the positive aspects in their lives, rather than focusing on the negatives as we all tend to do. This simple day-to-day activity can be used by any age group or background, and helps us to develop new skills, build new relationships and become more resilient in the long run.
Research into positive psychology shows us that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads to a tipping point beyond which we naturally become more resilient to adversity and better able to achieve things. We all have a natural focus on what goes wrong in our daily lives, often going over and over these things in our head. We are quick to notice even the smallest of problems, yet we rarely spend any time at all dwelling on the good things. Things that brought us a quick smile or felt good are all too often forgotten, or perhaps not even noticed in the first place. The activity of reflecting on three positive things a day is simple but incredibly powerful. It is about taking the time to notice the good things in our lives and get more out of them. These personal benefits can of course have a ripple effect on those around us. If parents remember to talk about the things they are grateful for, they can model positive behavior for their children, who will hopefully get the benefit of a gratitude habit for the rest of their lives. Positive emotions are contagious. Feeling positive emotions is good for us, which has a knock on effect and helps others feel good too.
By bringing positive psychology to the streets of Jaffna we hope that we can spread the ‘contagion’ of hope and raise awareness about positive mental health and wellbeing. In the words of Professor Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, is not a luxury and is “for all of us, troubled or untroubled, privileged or in privation, suffering or carefree.”
I agree – the benefits can be endless and for all. Today I am very happy to be me because 1) I am walking on the streets of Jaffna in the sunshine; 2) I have the opportunity to share the knowledge of positive psychology; 3) I have the potential of improving at least one person’s wellbeing today.
Dr Marcia Brophy is a Child Psychologist, and Wellbeing and Mental Health Specialist, and a fellow of the Young Foundation. She is currently working on a voluntary basis as a Mental Health and Wellbeing Development Worker and Training Advisor in Jaffna, north Sri Lanka, as part of VSO’s mental health and wellbeing programme. Marcia is working with Shanthiham, a non-for-profit charity and the Sri Lankan Government’s Department of Health.