Who Gets It: Us or Them?

Happy Sunday, friends! The last time I wrote an entry, it was at the end of a trying yet illuminating week. It was also the day before my 35th birthday. Just a week after publishing that post, I found myself landing in the South of France (and eventually Italy) with my sisters, embarking on a much-needed rejuvenating vacation. I absolutely love traveling and have been fortunate enough to have a passport filled with stamps from incredible places. I took a three-year-long pause during the pandemic, but as life started to feel more and more “normal,” I knew it was time to book a trip, disconnect from the world, and reconnect with myself again. One thing I’m always struck by when traveling overseas is seeing how different cultural values influences one’s overall well-being. Generally speaking, people in the United States live to work, but in other countries like France and Italy, it seems that people work to live. How might this overemphasis on work and productivity impact one’s mental health? Let’s see what researchers have found…

  • In 2020, The Commonwealth Fund found that: more U.S. adults have received mental health diagnoses than adults in other high-income countries with 23% in the U.S. compared to 4% in France and self-reported emotional distress rates are highest in Canada and the U.S. with 26% in the U.S. compared to 12% in France. These figures for adults are pretty high, but what about adolescents?
  • A 2021 World Health Organization study found that it is estimated that 1 in 7 (14%) 10-19 year-olds experience mental health conditions globally. If we look at Europe, UNICEF found that in 2021, nine million adolescents in Europe (aged 10 to 19) are living with mental disorders, with anxiety and depression accounting for more than half of all cases. And in 2022, the Atlantic published results from a CDC study highlighting the United States’ own youth mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.

Are these numbers so high because we’re (Americans) focusing on or prioritizing the “wrong” things? I know it’s more nuanced than that; however, there’s a reason why many European countries consistently find themselves at the top of the World Happiness Report. So, who gets it: us or them? Based on my research and my own experiences, I’d have to go with…them. If my inkling is correct, then those living in Europe who live a life with ease, have balance, slow down, are connected to nature, and nurture relationships with others have higher mental health and wellness outcomes. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I wonder what we can learn from some European countries like Denmark, Finland, and Norway and my own travels that are worth adopting into our lives to improve our mental health.

  1. Emphasize social support: intentionally connecting to each other and depending on each other and their government is critical in Nordic countries. “Family/friends first” is one of their values, and it’s something I found reverberating throughout most of my European travels. Whenever I went out to a restaurant in France or Italy, I noticed how people would spend hours dialed in and connected to the person or group of people at their table–laughing, telling stories, seeking advice, being seen, and seeing others. One thing we could practice is being fully present with the people we know and even those we don’t. A few months ago, I wrote a post about being a compassionate human being. When we do that, even in the smallest ways, we can have a very big impact. Instead of only working, spending hours studying in isolation, or focusing solely on your needs, prioritize community and connection. Social connections give our life purpose, and that is tied directly to longevity.
  2. Establish work-life balance: did you know that all of Europe takes the entire month of August off? Yes, even adults have summer break across the pond! This is where working to live versus living to work comes into play. So, what’s the difference between working to live and living to work? Working to live essentially means that you work so that you can afford to do the things that bring you joy, whereas living to work means that work is all-consuming, you base your life, your identity, and your worth around your job or your GPA. But let me let you in on a little secret: you are more, so much more and there is more to life than passing AP Trig or being named the most valued member of the team. It all comes down to balance. Do you make time for all the things that matter? Do you feel joy and fulfillment at school or work and outside of it? If not, how can you create balance and refill your cup before it’s bare?
  3. Connect to nature: I spent a lot of time going on very long walks outdoors or just sitting and taking in the views on this trip, and the same can be said for past trips I’ve taken to other European countries, and that wasn’t rare. In fact, most locals make it a point to disconnect from social media and reconnect to their surroundings in nature. There must be something to that because since the pandemic, there has been an increase in people taking mental health walks. More and more people are going on “hot girl walks,” and you should too because…science! In fact in 2022, the American Psychological Association published its own research on the ways in which taking walks improves your mental health. Taking breaks from your phone is also calming. One study showed how levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise when you’re frequently on your phone, and elevated cortisol is linked to irritability, anxiety, depression, weight gain, increased blood pressure, and poor sleep. So take a break from doom scrolling or going down that TikTok rabbit hole, put on your sneakers, and head outside. There is a life worth living out there, after all!

The truth is that no matter where you live, your mental health will wax and wane, but if some countries are reporting good mental health and wellness outcomes, then I think it’s worth exploring. These are just more strategies we can add to our ever-growing toolkit and try out on both good days and bad ones. Do any of these sound like realistic additions to your own life? Comment below!

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