The Truth About Mental Wellbeing: The Good, The Bad, and The Protective Factors

Written by
Ryan McGrory
August 4, 2022

We all know that wellbeing is one of the most significant social challenges of our time. But what informs our social view of wellbeing? And, how can we avoid the noise and gain perspective?

When it comes to wellbeing our social view is largely influenced by the news, social media, the wellness industry and many, many influencers. In the news, ‘wellbeing’ coverage ranges from stories of high-profile suicides and celebrity mental breakdowns to the monthly feature on the surprising mood-boosting benefits of chocolate, red wine or coffee. There’s also an entire industry dedicated to marketing wellness products ( ...which, just quietly, is a market currently valued at more than $1.5 trillion - with annual growth of 5 to 10 per cent!)

And of course, we have a significant number of wellbeing influencers who are active in shaping the public's perception of wellbeing. These influencers use various self-presentation strategies and tactics to educate and inspire their followers. However, the wellbeing industry is largely unregulated, and as a result, many of these influencers rely on personal testimonials, anecdotal evidence, intuition, and positive thinking to convey their messages. While some of these tactics are effective, others may be questionable … and it’s hard to tell which is which.

So, what do we actually know about the state of wellbeing?

Well, we know that the world is getting better.  

This contradicts the social narrative - but, it’s true.

If we’re to gift ourselves some perspective and draw on some key social and economic indicators (like GDP per capita, real wages, life expectancy, education, biodiversity, homicide rate, working hours and extreme poverty) then we would conclude that yes, the world’s wellbeing is getting better (if you’re interested, see more about that here.)

But, if it’s getting better, then why do we hear so much bad stuff about wellbeing?

Well, whilst the overall trend is our friend, there are still some very real and critical challenges that impact our wellbeing.

Mental wellbeing has been branded ‘the #1 public health challenge of our time.’ It’s an area where the trend is not our friend - rather, an enemy.

Here are a few things we know about the state of mental wellbeing right now:

  • 792 million people live with a mental health disorder. This is slightly more than one in ten people globally (10.7%)
  • Mental health conditions are increasing worldwide.
  • 800 000 people die from suicide globally each year (one death every 40 seconds.)
  • Around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition, with suicide the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds.
  • 1 in 5 people will experience mental health condition or illness in 12 month period.
  • Despite all of this, only < 2% of the global median of health budget is allocated to mental health.

See source links at the end of the newsletter.

Though, I should be pleased (and, really I am) that as a society we are starting to understand mental wellbeing better. This conversation (like the stats above) is dominated by risk-talk - understanding our risks, identifying our hazards and controlling adverse factors.

This alone is a massive step forward for how we as a society look at wellbeing - and represents a real shift in mindset from ‘let’s all bury our problems deep down, and never talk about them’ to ‘let’s start to understand what’s causing poor mental wellbeing.’  

However, like any risk-based approach, there’s the temptation for us to focus solely on the adverse factors - and neglect or forget about the protective ones.

I like this table. It’s from - and shows what impacts our mental wellbeing (good and bad) in three categories - the individual, social and environmental. IT desribes risk factors in a balance way, not just the adverse but the protective ones too. I’ve yet to see us do this well in the context of psychosocial risk.

And, I suspect it has something to do with how we approach problems and talk about them.

To illustrate, let me share an experience. I have delivered heaps of presentations on mental health and wellbeing over the past decade. Typically, before diving into the topic, I start by posing a question to the audience, asking them to define mental health or wellbeing. The replies I receive are quite predictable - ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘suicide’, and other related terms.

However, these responses reflect the symptoms of poor mental health and do not define mental health or wellbeing itself.

At some point, we’ve lost sight of the fact that mental wellbeing refers to how psychologically healthy we are - not how 'unwell' we are. Negative connotations have crept into our definitions, causing confusion. And, in a social context this can be harmful because our understanding of mental wellbeing can be shaped by negative (and incorrect) language.

With the introduction of Safework’s Code of Practice on Psychosocial Hazards, I’m watching closely to see how we, as workplace leaders, are speaking about wellbeing.

As a Stoic, I see the introduction of the psychosocial hazards code of practice as a neutral opportunity. It could go either way - we could either use it to truly understand our risk factors and improve our lives, or we could demonise the problem and make the process a farce.

Applying a risk lens to wellbeing is not inherently good or bad; it all depends on how we approach it.

In my view, we should take this opportunity seriously and design better workplaces, environments, cultures, and wellbeing outcomes.

We should also not neglect the protective factors and turn the process into a myriad of hurdles and pain. If we approach it with care and attention, this code of practice could be a huge opportunity for us to improve our lives.

However, from what I'm seeing so far, the language and discourse on all things 'psychosocial' is dominated by fear, negativity and a lot of focus on promoting the adverse factors ... with little to no mention of the protective.

To me, we're in danger of heading straight towards 'box ticking' territory - because where there's a lot of negativity and obscurity, it's very difficult to find positivity, focus and clarity. So, instead of designing wellbeing strategies with the necessary levels of optimism, insight, vision and desire, it's far more comfortable and safe to tick a box.

And, I think we need a bit of perspective. So, here are three things I like to remind myself about wellbeing to again, gift me some::

  1. As a society and a species, our wellbeing is improving (despite the social narrative to the contrary).
  2. We have real challenges with mental wellbeing, and the trend is not our friend.
  3. We are prone to focusing so much on the problems, we can forget about the protective factors.

And, as we head into a process of assessing and managing our psych hazards in the workplace ... whether you're ticking a box or designing a strategy - remember (as the ancients remind us) that wellbeing is about balance ... and, while it's good for us to think about our risks, we need to be focussing just as much on prevention and treatment.