Monday Musings… Investing in Your Mental Health

Recently, I was reading an article on financial matters. I enjoy reading about ways to save money, and as I’m getting ever closer to those senior discount perks, I’ll check out these columns every once in awhile. This past week, the columnist provided some excellent advice on the importance of fiscal responsibility within each decade of life, so that people can retire well, and have the resources they need to enjoy their senior years without financial strain. It all made perfect sense to me and I could see where my husband and I were ‘right on the money’ with many decisions we have made, and it highlighted some of the financial challenges of those early adulthood years where you’re establishing your family and career.

But what caught my eye was when the columnist came to the decade when people are in their 70s. There was no mention of financial planning, purchases, property, or provision; instead the focus was on improving or maintaining mental and physical heath. I thought this was interesting for a number of reasons.

First, because I can imagine that decisions about long term care are happening in that decade, and from the ads I’ve seen (not that I’m in any hurry to take up residence there), it's quite costly. Even moving into a condo, for almost the same price as you sold your home for, ends up costing as you add on condo fees. Where does that money come from?

But secondly, the reality in your 70s is that your friend group is more likely to shrink, as health challenges increase and, quite frankly, your friends die. Trust me, I read the obituaries every night (it’s been a hobby of mine for several years now), and it's quite common to read of people passing n their 60s, let alone 70s.

So, while I agree that in your 70s you should strengthen your existing social circle or expand if you can, this advice, for your overall health, needs to start decades earlier. In fact, it should start in the first decade of life.

Erik Erikson, a German-born American psychoanalyst and professor, developed a psycho-social theory of development that examined the impact of one’s social experience throughout the entire life span. His ideology was constructed in the 1940’s, making this a very old theory, but I believe it actually stands true today. Our conception of social relationships may have changed – I’m not going to say evolved because I don’t believe we’ve gotten better; in fact, I think in so many instances we’re not doing a good job at all – but his tenets hold some weight, as you'll see and relate to wherever you are in your life right now.

Erikson’s theory is so worthwhile to study because the health one experiences at each stage is dependent upon the stage directly preceding it. This parallels well with financial responsibility. You can’t expect to be able to live comfortably in old age, if you’ve never invested or been responsible in your younger years.

At each stage, Erikson suggests, we face a psychological conflict where our perceptions, and then choices, determine our personal growth. If we successfully master the conflict, we’ve gained psychological strength, and now carry that with us into the next stage, where we’ll face yet another conflict. If we don’t gain the skills to effectively deal with the conflict, then we’ll struggle. Our sense of who we are and what we are capable of will be weakened. As I look around me today at the ever-escalating mental health problems that are plaguing our nation, it makes me wonder if we need to go back and take a serious look at the wisdom offered in this 1940s philosophy.

Remember, his theory is rooted in a person’s interaction with their social world. As parents, we have to get it right from the get-go. Children learn about the world, and whether it's a safe and secure place, through us. The most important relationship is between parent and child, so that even when it may not be safe and secure ‘out there’, at home it is a haven. As that child grows, peers will take over and become a major source of influence - so parents, know who your kids are friends with!

The first five stages of his theory, from infancy through adolescence, focus on how the child learns to trust, gain autonomy, show initiative, industry (show abilities and accomplishments), and then forms their own identity. As his theory suggests, the flip side, and where problems start, is at stage one in infancy, when the child learns to mistrust his/her environment. This may continue as the child ages and feels overwhelmed, and continual shame and doubt ,or guilt’. In school they may feel inferior (can’t do anything right or good enough), and then in high school they may have no idea who they are or where they're going in life. This all takes place in the head space of the young person as they navigate their social worlds.

I see the results of this inner conflict all the time in some of the students I teach, who have carried over this psychological baggage into adulthood. In fact, our present-day society has recognized this and is essentially advocating for extended adolescence. In Erikson’s day, you were an adult at 18, with adult responsibilities, and self-sufficiency. But Professor Peter Jones, from Cambridge University in the UK, reported in January 2019, that adulthood doesn’t actually begin until people are in their 30s.

Now, if our government believed that, that would be a good reason to extend the child tax benefit, but seriously, this is a real social issue. The goal for each child as they mature is to find their purpose, and venture out on their own, knowing they have friends and family who care about them.

Erikson doesn’t break down the adult years into decades, like the financial columnist. Rather he looks at three main conflicts: intimacy versus isolation; generativity versus stagnation; and integrity versus despair.

For young adults in their 20s and 30s (Erikson had suggested 20-25) the goal is to form intimate, loving relationships with others. Intimacy for Erikson was not exclusively related to sex, but rather a relationship where a person could be themselves, without losing their sense of self. This means to carry over their identity formed in the previous stage, while entering into the natural reciprocal nature of a friendship. This is important as young people venture out on their own, as they should. They should have already had exposure to a healthy family and peer group who’ve modelled what is needed for a solid relationship. The problem is in our culture, many people reach the age of 18 with unhealthy or dysfunctional models, and now are trying to navigate the love canal only to find themselves on white water rapids. This then can lead to poor social adjustment and mental health issues involving isolation and loneliness.

As a person enters middle-age, 40s, 50s and 60s for us, (26-64 for Erikson), this is the time in our lives to give back. We do this through our children, who we raise you to be the next generation to promote our values and our work ethic. We can also do this through our employment or the services we provide to others. It’s being outward focused in relationships – we should regularly be asking what can we do to help. In fact, we know that one of the pillars of mental health from the World Health Organization is to contribute to community, so make that a goal. And so, I read with interest, that this financial columnist never commented on giving some of our wealth away while we are alive, whether that’s to our family, our neighbours, to someone in need, or to a charity. I think that giving is a wise social and financial investment. Erikson calls this kind of living with intention and serving others generativity; the opposite is stagnation. And we get that – we see that all around us. People with no motivation, no interest in anything except their own worldly pleasure, and their disengagement from others.

So, when we reach our 70s and beyond (65+ for Erikson) and if we’ve led a stagnant life, it’s a little too late to try to cultivate a social world then, not impossible, but difficult. Instead this should be the time of life, according to Erikson, to look back on our life, and celebrate our relationships, our accomplishments, and our legacy. What we will be remembered for? It’s a time of reflection and gratitude, even if we were not able to accomplish everything on the proverbial bucket list. Erikson calls this last stage of psychosocial development, integrity, because it also involves planning for a good death, where we have righted any wrongs and mended broken relationships. If we're not able to reflect on our life in this way, he says we will end this stage in despair. We certainly see this in nursing homes, where you have the sweet, happy senior, who is making the best of his/her time knowing this is the last residence they will have on earth, versus the grumpy, brooding senior who shuns any visitors and complains about the staff.

So, how do you want to age? We put so much emphasis on making sure we are financial stable, and little thought about being socially stable. Relationships should be one of your primary investment. You're never too young to start!

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