Agency

1. Respect a person’s agency to define positive mental health for themselves

A person has agency to make choices. That includes their definition about what positive mental health means for them, at different times and in different circumstances as well as the strategies that are likely to achieve their priorities and goals. This contrasts with that of mental illness and disorders, which are defined from a professional perspective (e.g. the DSM Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association).  

A person may express their perspective on what constitutes positive mental health for them in different ways. Some may describe how they are feeling, or what they are able to achieve. Others might highlight the state of their relationships with people and/or the natural world, or the meaning they see in their lives, or a process of endless becoming. We often found people identify what they do, their daily habits, to describe what they mean by positive mental health and only with probing surface the underlying reason for those habits (so for example, some ran for the physical exercise, others ran for the time to be alone and think, still others ran for the social connections and feeling of belonging).

A person’s perspective on their positive health will influence the types of strategies they are most likely to use. Examples of the ways some students expressed their perspectives include:

  • One student talks of counting on the ‘scaffold’ of weekly food preparation for holding all the uncertainty, volatility and competing priorities of their weekly schedule.
  • Another describes a practice of making sure to have at least some time for himself and some time outdoors every day as the practice helping him to build his capacity for more and more stressful jobs.
  • Still another walks 4 km daily as protected time to think through challenges. Note that different people may seek different benefits from a particular activity – others describe their walking practice as a way for maintaining valued relationships, or a way to maintain physical fitness.
  • Others have a ceremonial practice of smudging and reflection.
  • One was passionate about how much they learn about what makes them tick and how to keep developing.
  • Another highlighted the amount or quality of work they were able to produce.
  • Others describe being completely immersed in the experience of creating with their hands – woodwork, performing or visual arts.

Studies reinforce this individuality, and peoples’ differing emphasis on emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual and other facets of positive mental health. Also, this emphasis can sometimes vary in different situations, at different life stages. Strategies that are not congruent with the person’s emphasis will not be valued or pursued – thus the concepts of ‘resistance’ or ‘non-compliance’ do not apply – the reality is that the strategy does not match the person’s priorities.

Understanding the importance of a person’s agency has helped evolve thinking in health promoting strategies evolution from a ‘top down, expert directed’ approach to one that seeks to support the person’s agency and internal motivation to achieve their life priorities at the time. Individual professionals will of course have a perspective on their dimension of the person’s individual or ecological state, and the types of strategies they might find valuable in order to improve. However, it is important to recognize that the professional’s will be a partial perspective, and most often developed from objective measures. Some may look for individual’s strengths or capabilities, but conventionally is one largely focused on deficits. The individual comes from their unique integrated whole person-whole ecology-whole life perspective.