Christmas is the time for wishing each other well, for giving season’s greetings. We send Christmas cards and wish each other a merry Christmas, a happy Christmas, a peaceful Christmas, even a holy Christmas. We look forward to the New Year and wish each other peace and prosperity. It’s good that we celebrate this Winter fest by hunkering down and comforting each other in this way and it’s understandable that we end one year and begin another with good wishes for the future. It is part of the Christmas story that we show each other this goodwill and we recoil from those curmudgeonly types who are skeptical of all this goodwill. Scrooge in the Christmas Carol dismisses such sentiments with the classic response of “Bah! Humbug!”
The truth is that wishing each other well is important and it’s important for our wellbeing and our mental health. However, it might be worthwhile putting some more flesh on the bones of our wishes and considering at this time what it is that we really wish for each other. As a psychiatrist, my wishes are understandably related to our mental health, to our wellness and to our resilience. I want to wish everyone good health and wellness, good mental health, and for the New Year, greater resilience as we face the future.
The trouble with these sentiments is that they lack definition. Words such as wellness, mental health and resilience become bandied about and devalued. This is the first step before they become redundant. Soon after their overuse becomes the norm, they become dismissed and stigmatic and they lose their value.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn about wellness and about mental health and we can understand what wellbeing and resilience actually involve. Nowadays, most of us carry a mobile phone with more access to the worldwide web and the library of knowledge within it than ever before. So, this Christmas, let’s wish each other wellness and mental health and resilience and let us know what we mean.
Let’s take the first issue of wellness. A good definition of what it is to be well is to be found on the worldwide web at the Wellness Initiative. On this webpage, the heading ‘The Eight Dimensions of Wellness’ is given and there is a very good infographic describing these dimensions which I would recommend. It turns out that wellness cannot be reduced to a single idea. Wellness is both environmental and emotional, financial and social, spiritual and physical, and it is also occupational. This Christmas, let’s wish each other this sophisticated form of wellness which is full of human dimensions and also full of human hope. With this guideline, we can try to build our physical health and restore our environment. We can recognize our need for financial and social and spiritual wellness and that can help to build our emotional and occupational health as well. This definition could become our route map for all our educational and economic plans for the future. It would be a good place to start our conversation about Christmas and the New Year.
Of course, we would have to agree on what mental wellbeing actually involved. A very useful definition of this might be another gift we could give each other. This can be found at mind.org.uk, under the heading ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’. These five ways were developed by the New Economic Foundation and they represent very practical and hopeful ways to being well this Christmas and New Year. Like ‘The Eight Dimensions of Wellness’, the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ are also illustrated in very good infographics which you can find at the same address. These ways include a willingness to connect, to give, to take notice, to keep learning, and crucially to be active. The connection involves taking time to listen to each other, to be there for one another and to feel connected. Giving involves giving of your time, your words, your presence, and also of giving grace and giving way. It is not just a financial matter but actually a giving which is far more rewarding. The willingness to keep learning involves the willingness to embrace new experiences, see new opportunities, and to surprise ourselves. Taking notice involves remembering that the simple things are what give you greatest joy and then activity is so important too. By being active, we can do what we can to enjoy what we do and move to lift our mood.
These five ways, connecting, giving, taking notice, learning and being active are all practical and achievable ways of improving our wellbeing and any one of them would be a good gift this Christmas.
Understandably, not all of these things are achievable when we are under stress and rocked back on our heels. These are times when resilience is necessary. But how can we give the gift of resilience this Christmas?
Resilience is not about a single strength or force. It’s better seen as a kind of emotional fuel stored up in tanks which need to be refilled in order for our human capacity to stay on the road. These domains of resilience include education, a secure base, and social competencies. They also include friendships, talents and interests and positive values. At this time at Christmas, we can think of those who are less fortunate than ourselves and we can also be determined to contribute to our national agenda by building up the domains of resilience wherever we can. That is why we need to support our children’s education and a lifelong adult education. We need to do more to provide for those who are homeless or whose security of base is rocked by economic and other pressures. We need to build up our friendships and value them so that we extend our talents and interests and make our social lives and personal lives more positive and filled with value.
None of these six domains of resilience is beyond our imagination. All of them are universal, humane and within our reach. This Christmas, let’s wish each other a well Christmas, a mentally healthy Christmas and a resilient New Year.
Prof Jim Lucey
Prof. Jim Lucey was Medical Director of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Dublin, from 2008 to 2019. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. He has been working for more than 30 years with patients suffering from mental health problems. In addition to medical management, he maintains his clinical practice at St Patrick`s, where he specialises in the assessment, diagnosis and management of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and other anxiety disorders. He gives public lectures and is a regular broadcaster on mental health matters on RTÉ radio, featuring on ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’.