The Bugs and the Bees: Mental Health Really Matters for All of Us

shutterstock_262155599As we kick off 2016, it’s time to sit down and have that awkward “bugs and bees” talk. We cannot put it off any longer. It’s time to explain why mental health really matters for all of us.

Business leaders are not unacquainted with the negative impact of mental health. In any given week, nearly half a million Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. One in three disability claims are related to mental health, and the cost of claims and lack of productivity is exorbitant (70% of disability costs are attributed to mental illness). Despite this, many of us view mental health as something that pertains to other people.

Perhaps a story from nature will help us understand why mental health matters, and help us better connect with how life works. Believe it or not, we humans have a lot in common with ants and bees, as well as other eusocial species like mole rats. These groups all share intergenerational and cooperative care of their young, and division of labor is critical to their survival. Just like humans.

Dr. Thomas Joiner’s team at Florida State University has been studying the “bugs and the bees” to look for parallels with the Interpersonal Model of Suicide. This breakthrough concept, introduced just over a decade ago, suggests that people end their life by suicide because of two dominant intrapsychic pains:

  • They believe they are a burden to others
  • They have a sense of thwarted belongingness

When this happens to a bee or ant (because of injury or disease, for example), three things occur. First, it becomes very agitated. Next, it separates itself from the group. Lastly, it dies. Joiner’s team suggests that suicide among humans is a derangement of this self-sacrificial process observed among other eusocial species.

Feeling alone. Feeling that others would be better off without them. On the continuum of mental illness, this represents the darkest side and generates tremendous emotional pain and thoughts of death.

But consider the flip side of these two coins: contribution and connection. Two words. What do these words tell us about mental health? That instead of feeling like a burden to others, one perceives they are making a difference for their family, friends, and/or community. And this belief is inextricably tied to an engagement to others in the “colony.”

It’s early in 2016, which means that about a third of us are still thinking about our New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you want to improve your health. You’ve committed to losing weight. Exercising more. Quitting smoking.

If you’re a smoker, giving up cigarettes is only the second most powerful thing you can do to improve your health. You’ll never guess what the best thing is.

Strengthening social supports.

In 2010, Julianne Holt-Lunstad performed a meta-analysis of nearly 150 scientific studies on morbidity and mortality. She concluded that the most powerful predictor was strengthening social supports. Being alone and feeling lonely increased the likelihood of death by 30%. By contrast, having friends and strong social connections will help you live longer and live better.

This isn’t a feel-good theory. It’s science. We thrive in work and life when we feel connected and are making a contribution. We despair when we feel alone and feel others would be better off without us. There is a long continuum in between the two.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada has created a simple continuum model to help explain how this works. There are four categories, ranging from healthy to ill, and the model describes the symptoms and states for each, as well as important actions to take at each phase. We are all on this line, moving back and forth along it throughout our lives.

2016-01-07_19-36-24Surprisingly, this continuum can be a hard concept for those individuals who have spent most of their days in the green, feeling like they are on top of the world. What they don’t realize is that they feel that way largely because of their social support network and the influence and impact they perceive they are making.

But we are all part of the colony. Life happens. The marine who has no memory of a time that wasn’t green gets injured, is discharged, and finds himself in the red very quickly. Same for the senior executive who for years has had thousands depending on her and when she retires, she suddenly perceives her life more of a burden than a benefit.

Now imagine how a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, major depression, or an addiction might skew a person’s view of their role in the colony. We tend to view suicide risk as a symptom of the mental illness, but the real threats are lack of contribution and connection.

The Harvard Business Review agrees. The recent article “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive” by Seppälä and Cameron describe the negative outcomes of high-pressure companies. Healthcare costs are doubled and productivity is siphoned away. There is a 50% increase in voluntary turnover in these environments and errors and defects are 60% more likely.

Their answer for managers is simple. Go out of your way to help. Show empathy. Encourage people to talk to you. And most importantly, foster social connections.

In “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Manager’s Do Differently,” authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman show us that the best managers have staff who can answer yes to all the following key questions:

  • Do I have a best friend at work?
  • Does my work matter?
  • Does my supervisor or someone at work care about me?
  • Do I get to do what I do best every day?

I’m not naïve. The challenges of work can be intense, but they’re much more manageable when the work is shared and the worker is valued. It’s a little like charging into my first mud runner event a few years ago. Seemed like a great idea as I was sprinting along at front of the pack, and at the very first obstacle, our group came to a sloshing stop in muddy water. The person immediately to my right stumbled full up to their neck.

None of us could find a way to scale the muddy hill in front of us. We slipped and slid with others piling into the muddy pool, pressing us from behind. The guy next to me found a small stick and tried to claw his way out, but he failed. I grabbed the stick from him and forced it into the dirt so that he could plant his foot and lunge to the top.

My fellow ant looked back ever so briefly to express his thanks, and I yelled for him to reach down and help pull me up, too. He hesitated for an instant, and then leaned over, extending his hand and working to pull me up the mudslide, but our grip failed.

I urged him to give it one more try. He did and a moment later, I was up and over the top and the two of us were on to the next obstacle.

No, I didn’t win a Nobel prize and he didn’t cure cancer. But those brief moments demonstrate the essence of how life works, and why mental health matters for everyone. We’re part of a community. We work together to care for each other across generations. We divide labor to survive. We thrive when we are connected, and when we realize what we do helps others.

Ants do it. Bees do it. Humans do it, too.

Let’s stop putting it off. It’s time to talk about the bugs and the bees.


Note: I’m posting this blog from Washington DC participating in tomorrow’s The White House Dialogue on Men’s Health, an unprecedented event featuring the U.S. Surgeon General and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson. Speakers include international leaders like Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas and Kevin Hines.




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