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Mental fitness: new concept for a new year

9th January, 2019

Dr Ian Drever MB, ChB, MRCPsych



At this time of the year, thoughts often turn to future plans, good intentions and ways of generally making a fresh start. Physical fitness is often high on the list; ask any gym when their peak new membership month is, and it’ll be January.

It’s easy to make a commitment to take concrete steps to improve our physical fitness, but what about our mental fitness? Isn’t that something which should also be nurtured, and isn’t it something which we can train in the same way that we train our muscles in the gym?

A skills-based approach to wellness

It turns out that, yes, many of the essential skills needed to understand our minds, and to help keep our mental fitness in top shape can also be learned and practised, just as we’d hone any other skill.

It’s precisely this skills-based approach to looking after our mental fitness which is starting to become increasingly recognised. For too long, looking after our minds has been, at best, an afterthought, and more generally something which we’ve tended to completely avoid.

Seeking the help of an expert was something to be put off, to be kept under wraps and only considered if you were ‘bad enough’.

The way things were

As a practising psychiatrist for over twenty years, my clinics were full of people who had ‘held it together’, invariably for many months and often for many years, trying to cope with all kinds of adversity. They’d stoically soldier on, determined not to endure the dark arts of what a psychiatrist might unleash on them.

It never made any sense. The really sad thing to me was that had we worked together at an earlier stage, the features of illness could have been turned around faster and more easily. Unsurprisingly, like anything in life, nipping a problem in the bud means that it’s less likely to develop into something more serious.

In fact, we can now go one step further – instead of waiting for the first signs of illness to occur, we can all learn skills to help prevent illness from arising in the first place and allow us to function at our best. This is what the concept of mental fitness is all about.

Mental fitness

Just as we all have levels of physical fitness, so it is with our mental fitness. And just as there are things that we should all be doing on a daily basis to look after our bodies, the same applies to our minds.

These skills aren’t difficult, and once they’re practised, can become second nature. For instance, it may involve revamping some thinking styles that can trip us up. How often do you beat yourself up with the word ‘should’? It’s easy to get into a habit of being your own worst enemy with all kinds of self-imposed expectations around ‘should, have to or must’. Or what about a tendency to ‘catastrophise’, and imagining life’s daily blips at their most extreme end-point, no matter how unlikely it is to ever actually occur?

Other useful skills are being able to step back from the minutiae of life and learning to respond objectively rather than to react. We’re hearing an increasing amount about mindfulness, too, an age-old practice of being calmly and powerfully connected with the moment, rather than passively carried along on a flood of cluttered thoughts.

Mental fitness then, is about learning skills and practising these as part of our everyday life, to keep ourselves well and function at our best.

What tomorrow’s consumers want

Previous models of mental health treatment are steadily falling out of favour. No-one wants to take time off work and come to an impersonal, illness-focused clinic. Instead, increasingly savvy and switched-on consumers want experiences which are aspirational, fun and empowering. Above all, they crave connection, authenticity and community - something increasingly precious in an ever-more-virtual world.

At The Academy of Mental Fitness, we’re on a mission to make looking after our mental fitness as normal as going for a run or eating five a day. I like to think of us as a gym for the mind. Somewhere to connect, mingle and be well. An ecosystem of health and wellness options; a healthy space to learn to navigate life effectively.

In conversations I’ve had with dozens of individuals, it has been interesting – and hugely heartening – to note the enthusiasm and positivity around the concept of a mental fitness service like this.

Healthcare is crying out for fresh thinking and creative disruption, so let 2019 be the year when more ideas become reality!


Dr Ian Drever MB, ChB, MRCPsych

Dr Drever is the Founder Director of The Academy of Mental Fitness in Esher, and has been a practising psychiatrist in both the NHS and private sector for over twenty years. He is passionate about developing new ways for mental fitness to become an accessible and aspirational part of everyday life.

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