Writing for The Leaders Council, Mandy Cooper, chief executive of mental health and addiction services provider Bayberry Ltd, reflects on World Mental Health Day 2021 and highlights what must be done to achieve mental wellbeing.
‘Banks were places where people deposited or withdrew thoughts of wellbeing…thoughts of serenity. When people were ill, they went to their bank. When healthy, they went to the hospitals. The hospitals were places of laughter, amusement, and recreation. They were houses of joy.’ - Ben Okri, ‘Astonishing the Gods’
When Okri imagined this Utopia, 25 years ago, at the same time, another world was slowly branching into life. I was seated in a lecture hall, half-way up the raked seating, staring down in awe as my professor spoke to his computer - and it answered him. I’d joined the first ever degree course in Europe that promised to explore another emerging Utopia, the World Wide Web.
25 years on, I reflect on the early responses to the virtual world. I would excitedly expound the abstract possibilities and clients would look puzzled and say, ‘But, what would we do with it?’
Today, they ask, ‘How would we live without it?’
Over the last 10 years, my world extended its own new neural branch - from technology to mental health. The parallels between the two aren’t lost on me. I’ve spent the last decade making new connections - at Harvard with biotechnology and Buddhism; then with a Stanford faculty team, passionate about transformative technology for wellbeing. In 2019, we launched our own centre for wellbeing, within our Warwickshire-based residential facilities, and appointed our first Novel Technologies’ Lead, my neuroscientist son Dr Dan Cooper.
And a new age of wonder begins. Alongside our team of psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists, delivering contemporary methods of in-person therapy, we introduce clients to neuroscience-based treatments and psychoeducation. Often, people look perplexed: at the headsets, and VR units and the charts of brainwaves undulating quietly on screen. A quarter of a century on, I hear the question again: ‘But, what would do we do with it?’
This time, the world has a date in mind: 2030. A new world of connectivity and opportunity; the biotechnology revolution is upon us.
So, what does this have to do with World Mental Health Day - and the 2021 campaign ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’?
Estimates suggest that mental health challenges affect one in 10 of the world’s population. And these statistics were produced pre-pandemic. We have not yet seen the tsunami of trauma that is currently only seeping through the cracks in the walls of the place we called ‘before Covid’.
Talking therapy is remarkable, extraordinary, and life transforming. I know this as a clinician and, 20 years ago, I knew this as a patient with panic disorder.
But we don’t have enough people on the planet to make this exclusively about one-to-one therapy. And neither can we wait for people to need help before they learn to become well. There aren’t enough therapists and there isn’t enough time. Inequity exists globally – and although the Western world has marginally better access to mental health services, the opportunities are still scarce, and the resources spread so thinly as to be virtually transparent.
But ‘virtually’ there is hope.
It starts with education - the inclusion on the school curriculum of mental health wellbeing education. Learning what it is, why it’s important - and how to care for ourselves and for each other, right from the very beginning.
And, concurrently, we deploy our collective learning and wellbeing techniques – virtually - across the world: because emotion is something we share. Our emotions are human - and transcend everything that may seek to divide us. We might express them in different ways, but it’s what’s inside that counts.
There is a way to wellbeing - and the maps are being drawn. From the Dalai Llama and Dr Paul Ekman’s ‘Atlas of Emotions’, to the biotechnology revolution - the highway we need to deliver Okri’s ‘banks of deposited well-being’ already exists.
We don’t have all the answers yet; the ways in which we’ll reach everywhere – and everyone; how we’ll cross borders and make the technology universally accessible. But I know we will. Just as I knew it in 1995. It feels the same.
And each one of us can contribute. We must go beyond what we had and what we did before. The online world had become an adjunct, a daily punctuating point of social scrolling. With the pandemic, it became a lifeline. It’s showing us where we can go and what we do – when we realise that this is the superhighway to greater accessibility. Mental wellbeing is a human right. And a human right is for everyone. It’s how we solve everything. It’s how we go beyond.
Mandy Cooper is the chief executive of Bayberry Ltd – a pioneering group of private, residential clinics treating mental health and addiction in the centre of England. She has led the organisation for 10 years, is a psychotherapist, psychologist, and mental health programme director – and has a special interest in building capacity and resilience for access to wellbeing services, using the power of technology.
She has led Bayberry through an expansion of its residential services and the launch of its adjunct online mental health and wellbeing programme, ‘Bayberry Beyond’. More information can be found at www.bayberry.org.uk.
The Transformative Technology Academy is a ‘global tribe’ of innovators and academics working on a worldwide mission to improve human wellbeing using technology. Visit the collective at www.ttacademy.co Leaders are able to join the one-month virtual academy to connect and network, free of charge.