May 7 – May 13th 2018 marks the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Mental Health Week. In light of Mental Health Week, Dr. Joelle LeMoult spoke to WHRI about mental health, research, and stress. Read the interview below!
In CMHA’s campaign they mention that although we may not all live with mental health problems, we all “have mental health, just like we all have physical health”. What does this mean for the importance of mental health research?
CMHA’s powerful campaign emphasizes that mental health exists along a continuum. Accordingly, we don’t need to wait until our mental health is problematic to seek help or to want change. Instead, everyone can strive for mental health improvement and balance. This has a number of implications for mental health research. First, it emphasizes the importance of expanding research so that it works to improve both the treatment of mental illness and the promotion of mental wellbeing. Second, it demonstrates that research on mental health benefits all of us. With that in mind, #SupportTheReport is critical to ensuring that we all continue to benefit from research on mental health.
How does gender impact mental health and how mental health research is conducted?
Much of my research focuses on depression, which tends to affect women twice as often as it does men. There are both gender-specific and sex-specific factors that contribute to this difference in the prevalence of depression between women and men. For a long time, we overlooked these factors in research, and as a result we were missing a big part of the story. In more recent years, however, we have been able to make exciting strides in our understanding of depression because we have begun to uncover the sociocultural and biological factors that make women more vulnerable (and there are several WHRI members who have been at the forefront of that progress!). Importantly, this has improved our understanding and treatment of depression for both women and men. In fact, that’s the exciting part about conducting gender-specific mental health research, it enables us to better understand the disorder across the whole population.
In recent years discussion about mental wellness and self-care seem to have been gaining traction in mainstream and social media. How do you think we might move toward bridging the gap between ‘trending topics’ and consistent dialogue?
This is an important question. I think we are moving toward breaking down the stigma that is associated with mental health difficulties. People are starting to conceptualize mental health problems in the same way that they conceptualize physical health problems. Our community is also starting to realize that we are all affected by mental health problems, either because they affect us personally or because they affect someone we care about. As a result, I think we are starting to talk more openly about the importance of self-care. This is also beginning to encourage policy changes – for example, the addition of social-emotional learning to the BC School curriculum. All of this has come because of people being willing to share their own story and/or advocate for change. I am particularly excited when I hear conversations about self-care and mental health awareness in youth as it not only promotes a generation that is raised with different views of mental health, but it also moves us from intervention to prevention.
Often being busy and handling stress ‘well’ is associated with success, and in our culture this could be seen as a romanticization of ‘stress’ itself (example: http://theeverygirl.com/why-do-we-romanticize-stress/). Could you give your thoughts on how this affects mental health?
The romanticization of stress is something I have seen in both my research and personal life, particularly in some cultures or environments. Unfortunately, I think many individuals focus more on the “being busy and stressed” side of the coin than on the “handling stress well” side of the coin. There is a tremendous amount of research showing that how we handle stress – hope we perceive it, cope with it, and contain it – is critical to mental health and wellbeing. Both stress and our ability to cope with that stress is related to the onset of many mental health difficulties, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Thus, from my perspective, not only do we need broader cultural changes in our romanticization of stress, but we can benefit from more immediate changes in the way we cope with stress. This includes recognizing signs that we are too stressed, better regulating our emotions in the face of stress, and creating/using a social-support network that facilitates positive coping strategies.
What signs should people look for to recognize the differences between a typical response to stress and responses which are akin to depressive episodes?
Depressive episodes are frequently triggered by stress; in fact, much of my research examines the link between stress and depression, so I think this is an incredibly important question. Typical responses to stress are shorter and can be more easily contained than responses that are akin to a depressive episode. Depressive episodes, on the other hand, are more likely to be associated with significant impairment in your personal or professional life, and it is important to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider if you notice your stress affecting your life in this way. Signs of depression also include feelings of sadness or persistent loss of interest in your daily activities for most of the time for a couple of weeks.
You can read more about the CMHA’s campaign here. #GetLoud!