The most important skill set for mental health professionals is empathy. Here’s what we found after analyzing nearly 55,000 studies.
Until relatively recently, many researchers studying ways to improve mental and behavioral health have been reluctant to answer that fundamental questions.
They argue instead that it’s best to first determine whether a method actually helps before asking “why.”
As time passed, more and more studies came out showing that these treatments worked. Some of them looked different, but they used the same basic techniques to produce similar results.
And some people started claiming that their method was superior to others. But if the bottom line outcome was better than a control condition (which could be anything from placebo to no treatment at all), then the method went on the list.
So even though these methods had nothing to do with each other, they ended up lumped together into one category called evidence-supported therapies.
Maybe. Maybe not? Outcomes alone cannot determine if something is right or wrong. To find out what is correct, we must ask why. Why did you do this? What was
Gradually statistical techniques that identify important paths of change—that answer the “why” questions—become increasingly popular among psychologists.
One of the most commonly utilized approaches is called “mediation analysis.”
Mediation applies when:
1- A treatment changes a proximal process more than a control group.
2 – That proximal process relates to an intermediate variable.
3 – That intermediate variable relates to a distal indicator of clinical improvement.
4 – And removing the path between the proximal and intermediate variables removes much of the effect of the treatment on the distal indicator.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to begin and the number of published papers in that area are now sufficiently large to conduct a thorough review.
A little over 5 years ago, my colleagues Stefan Hofmann, Joe Ciarrochi, Baljinder Sahdra, and Fred Chin, along with myself, set out to examine all published mediational analyses in RCTs that targeted psychological interventions aimed at improving mental well being.
We found that about half of them were successful and we wrote a paper describing how they did it.
We didn’t know what kind of experience we’d get.
It was a huge task that required the efforts of nearly fifty different individuals for almost four years.
We joked that it was the DeathStar because it was so big and complex that it seemed destined to destroy us if we ever got close enough to it.
54.633 reports were each rated twice to determine whether the analysis was correctly performed. Initially, it seemed like about 1,000 of these had made it into the running, but as the research continued, we began throwing out those that didn’t meet certain standards.
In order to focus on the main outcomes, we narrowed down the pool of potential candidates to include only those that were replicated at least twice in our database.
We ultimately ended up with 281 clear results using 73 different methods. A few days ago, the results of an enormous review that I’ve ever seen attempted finally came out in the highly regarded journal Behavior Research and Therapy.
As you may have gathered, there is no such thing as a single path to success. Each person’s story is unique, and the factors that contribute to that success can vary greatly. However, one thing remains constant across every story – the ability to be psychologically flexible and mindful.
These two qualities account for almost half of what we know about how to help others achieve lasting change.
When we add in concepts that are very similar to these two qualities (self-compassion, behavioral activity, and so forth), they account for another quarter of the total.
So, if you’re interested in learning how to help someone make changes, you should focus on developing these two qualities. They’ll take you much further than any other factor ever could.
The three pillars of psychological flexibility include acceptance, defusion, and mindfulness.
Now we know for certain that psychological flexibility is the one most commonly found keystone habit to help us cope with our mental health issues, whether they be anxiety, depression, addictions, etc.
What does this mean? Think of it as three things in one.
3 Fundamental Skill Set for Mental Health
Pillar #1 Awareness
The first pillar of mental health is awareness. This means being aware of what shows up in the mind and how we feel about it.
We are not just thinking about our problems; we are feeling them too. We are not just watching ourselves think; we are experiencing those thought patterns.
We are not just observing our emotions; we are feeling them. We are not just listening to our bodies; we are experiencing them.
The “now” can only be experienced through words. They’re not enough. You’ve got to taste them. That means getting out of your mind, into your body, and into your senses.
Awareness is about being present, rather than having thoughts about what you think you should do next.
And even more, awareness entails the ability to deliberately expand, narrow, or focus on different parts of your experiences.
And all of that comes from the part of you connected to other people.
Pillar #2 Openness
The second component of psychological acceptance is openness, meaning being able to experience difficult emotions and painful memories without changing them into something else.
In order to achieve this, you must let go of trying to make these experiences disappear or change. You may find yourself thinking, “I’m just feeling sad right now,” or “I feel angry.”
These statements are fine, but if you’re struggling to keep those emotions out of your head, then you’re fighting against them. Acceptance involves letting go of resisting unpleasant emotions and memories.
Pillar #3 Valued Engagement
The third and final element of psychological fitness is value engagement. This means having clear ideas about what you want, and then acting upon them.
It involves being aware of your own needs, wants, and desires, and choosing how they should shape your actions. It also requires understanding yourself better, so you know where you stand, and what motivates you.
Once you’ve done that, you can start building habits that support your values, and help you live a happier, healthier life.
Psychological flexibility is the one skill that can help you make changes in every area of your life. When you learn how to manage emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and relationships effectively, your whole life improves.
You’ll feel better about yourself, and others will notice. Learn how to improve your mood, regulate stress, cope with anxiety, increase motivation, and develop new habits.
You’ll also learn how to practice acceptance and compassion toward yourself and others.
When you are upset about something at school, you can let go of your anger and frustration, accept what happened, and try to learn from it. You can also talk things out with your friends, who may not share your views.
They might offer advice or support, and they might even understand where you’re coming from. In addition, you could seek help from teachers or counselors if needed. Finally, you can choose to focus on positive aspects of the situation instead of dwelling on negative ones.
By practicing psychological flexibility, you’ll develop skills to cope with difficult situations in your own life.
When we have a clear target in mind, we can as a society learn how to move it together. Mindfulness and psychological flexibilty are not the only processes that are important in creating mental health but these two are the most common ones.
It lets us know where we need to focus our efforts.