/mɛnt(ə)l fɪtnəs/ – a personal framework for understanding how to build wellbeing and having a positive sense of how we feel, think and act
It has only been over the past decade that I have focussed more on my physical fitness, to assist with my health and wellbeing, and manage my injuries. Going to the gym multiple times a week helps me to gain and maintain strength and reduces my pain experience from injuries that I sustained over 15 years ago.
In order to be accepted into frontline service organisations, you must be physically fit. There is an expectation that you will maintain fitness even as you get older, as it is always expected you can meet certain minimum fitness criteria.
This is perfectly understandable considering the role itself requires quite a lot of physical fitness. When fighting a fire, you may have to stand with the hose for lengthy periods of time. Or as a paramedic, you may have to lift someone onto a gurney. Police officers may have to chase a perpetrator down. We know that these roles require a certain level of physical fitness.
However, we also know that these roles expose individuals to traumatic experiences, leaving them in a place of psychological vulnerability. We participate in physical fitness, requiring minimum standards and ongoing work to maintain them. So, why don’t we also practice mental strengthening exercises? Training and regular exercises that support us to understand our risk from exposure to traumatic events and how to minimise this risk.
We need to provide individuals with a mental skills toolbox!
To support physical fitness capacity, we usually follow a program. We have personal trainers; we watch what we eat and how we sleep. We can engage in high energy activities like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or lower intensity exercise like Yoga or Pilates. There are a variety of forms of exercise that can improve and maintain physical fitness and we know that these roles require a minimum level of fitness and we require people to maintain that in order to stay in the job.
We know that people in certain industries are going to end up with psychological challenges because of the work they do. What we don’t seem to understand is that there is a range of mental fitness exercises and tools that they should engage with post exposure.
As an industry, emergency services personnel have been told that their physical health is highly important and must be maintained. Yet, their mental health is not even considered until after it has noticeably deteriorated, usually long after the exposure has occurred. In many cases, the status of a worker’s mental health is not observed or addressed until the individual is in a state in which they are no longer able to work.
This is not to be disparaging of any organisation.
From a psychological perspective, we have only looked at mental health from a reactive position, what to do once these people are broken, to help them heal.
There is a lot that we can do to help them recover, however, there is so much more that we can do to intervene earlier in the process. We can help our workers to become mentally fit before they get exposed to traumatic events and help them maintain that fitness.
When we consider rehabilitation for physical injuries, they may take a few weeks out of the gym, engage with some physiotherapy, then get back to exercise ASAP to build up muscle strength. So why don’t we help people to understand the same concept can be applied when we are recovering from a psychological injury?
There are so many things that we can do to help people build mental fitness and prevent them from developing post-traumatic injuries. It is frustrating that we don’t do more to help our people build mental fitness and organisations are missing a significant opportunity to improve the capability of their people.
Just as we expose ourselves to new ways of training our physical body, we need to understand that there are new ways of being able to train our psychological mindset as well.