Understanding mental health with systems thinking

a simple holistic perspective on the complexity and importance of mental health

Winnie Lim
Jul 16, 2017 · 3 min read

There is a lot of misinformation on mental health. The science and research has been advancing, but unfortunately it takes a long time for it to reach the consciousness of the mainstream.

Most people think of mental health as:

Negative emotions and/or stress = Bad mental health

What if you were told just having a bad diet could cause mental health disorders? Imagine all this while we think of having depression as a character flaw, and now we can entertain the possibility that improvement can come from managing our diet?

The map for mental health looks more like this:

There is also a strong genetic component: stress is now known to pass from generation to generation, and it could even be passed down from our grandparents even if our parents were not exposed to it.

This is just a simplified abstract representation, of course. But it is already more complex than the linear one-directional negative emotions → mental health relationship we previously knew. We need to think of it as a system in order to have a more complete understanding.

The above map can help to explain why it is so challenging to pinpoint the cause of mental disorders. Without knowing the cause, it is difficult to design improvement strategies. Any of these combination of factors or even the slightest shift in any of the arrows could disrupt the delicate balance required to achieve good mental health.

Take diet alone. Our hormones and neurotransmitters need certain nutrients in order to function smoothly or to be produced. It could be anything. Deficiency in magnesium, vitamin B, amino acids (protein), even glucose — the list goes on. Then, we can faithfully plan a wholesome diet but it needs to be metabolised, which is impacted by sleep and exercise. Too much exercise may be too stressful for people in certain stages of recovery.

And we could possibly try to do everything right, but the stress we suffer from our environments — both internal and external — may outweigh it.

What about people who claim to that it is all about our mental state or lack of will? We see messaging about the virtue of 100-work weeks if we really desire success, how sleep is for the weak, etc. The map works for mental impairment and physical health too. Sleep alone is a need, not a luxury for cognitive capabilities, as well as physical health. Lack of sleep is known to cause a variety of conditions, including Alzheimers.

Our health is like an orchestra. The conductor is the brain. Our physical body requires a complex system of neurotransmitters and hormones to function. Without adequate self-care the brain suffers, and everything else will.

So we should stop thinking of mental health in a silo, as if it only exists in the mind — a mere mental image, and that we can think mental disorders away.

Also, don’t let anyone tell you sleep is for the weak. We suffer the consequences of our health, the people who tell us that will not be there to exert sympathy on us when shit hits the fan. Is psychological validation for 100-work weeks worth having the possibility of Alzheimers?

This is a largely unedited draft and a part of a complex topic, an attempt to consolidate my research and learning for the past decade. I’ll probably write more parts or extend it in some way. My personal strategy is just to publish it and not obsess over it, and make edits to it whenever necessary, or I’ll never publish anything. Please pardon me for any inaccuracies and do respond below if there’s feedback. :)

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