Building a Healthier, Wealthier GTHA by Focusing on Mental Capital

by Dr. Kwame McKenzie

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) is not just a collection of homes, institutions, businesses, and the physical infrastructure that links them. The GTHA is the people and families who live there. People are the basis of social and economic wealth. If we want a livable, healthy, and vibrant region, we need to help people develop fully. Building a strong society in a knowledge and service era requires investment in our psychological resources.

Investing in people and communities is in everyone’s interests. Health, social investments, and economic success are intertwined. Yet increasing inequity in our region undermines individual, community, and economic development and threatens our future. Amazon considered Toronto for a second headquarters because of its successful track record in diversity and the supply of smart people. Amazon understands that in a knowledge and service economy, the foundation on which you build social and economic advantage is minds, not muscles or machinery.

Others have come to the same conclusion. The British government, which believes that building psychological resources is of strategic importance, has propelled a new concept into the public policy lexicon: mental capital. Mental capital is a way of thinking about the psychological resources of a person, a group, a city, or a country. It is considered a type of capital because it can be amassed and spent. According to a British government report, mental capital has three components: cognitive ability, flexibility and efficiency in learning, and emotional intelligence. The first two are linked to IQ and the last is known as EQ.

However, the ability to deploy IQ or EQ is linked to mental health. Mental capital should really be seen as the sum of IQ + EQ + mental health. Mental health is the glue that holds public health together. Increased mental capital improves health promotion and illness prevention. The risk of illness and recovery from illness are linked to a person’s IQ, EQ, and mental health.

When most people hear the term “mental health,” they think of mental illness. That is understandable, because mental illness is the single most common reason for absenteeism from work. Moreover, 1,300 people die by suicide each year in Ontario; up to 90 percent of them have diagnosable mental health problems. According to the Toronto-based non-profit CivicAction, most people believe we should do more to help people with mental illness.

But people who do not suffer from a mental illness may still have problems with mental wellness. The mental wellness that people need in order to thrive includes resilience in the face of stress and the psychological ability to be an active participant in families, society, and the economy. CivicAction recently reported that 50 percent of people employed in the GTHA have had problems with mental wellness and in more than 80 percent of people, these problems have had an impact on their work.

An investment in mental capital is an investment in public health, societal health, community, and the economy. That is why I see focusing new municipal initiatives on building and preserving mental capital as a path to a more livable, healthy, and vibrant region.

Ways to improve mental capital start with action on the social determinants of health to improve early childhood development and go all the way to preserving cognitive abilities in older people. One way to think about improving mental capital at an individual level echoes the concept of five servings a day of fruit and vegetables to promote heart health. The British government has suggested that mental capital can be improved by a different type of “five a day”: staying connected; continuing to learn new things; keeping active; giving back; and taking notice and enjoying your everyday environment. Municipal policies that facilitate this “five a day” could improve our opportunity to thrive psychologically.

Much of what municipalities do already promotes mental capital. Improved transit decreases commute times and allows parents more time with their children. Libraries offer educational opportunities. Planning walkable environments helps keep people active and allows them to enjoy their surroundings more. Developing pathways to volunteering lets people give back. Good management of the physical environment and production of an equitable social environment which promotes diversity will build mental capital.

The value of having mental capital as a named focus for new policy is that it offers clarity of purpose in an environment in which disparate policy focuses and limited resources may lead to uncertainty of direction.

Collective impact requires a common goal. That common goal could be building mental capital. Effective collective impact also calls for an influential champion, financial resources, and a sense of urgency. Municipalities elect leaders who should be influential champions; my focus is more on improving the effectiveness of existing resources rather than new resources, but I will briefly discuss the issue of urgency.

While the economy has boomed, we have witnessed increases in income inequality, precarious work, child poverty, and inequities in illness and life expectancy. These trends undermine social development and economic viability. If we continue to ignore them, we will live in a region with increasing social discord and decreasing public health. We will all end up poorer.

We are spending less on education as a percentage of per-capita GDP than we were in the 1990s, and we are building stressful home, community, and work environments that undermine our ability to thrive. We are using up mental capital without replenishing it through focused investment.

In the municipal elections, I will be looking for politicians who put people first, not business. Focusing on building mental capital and developing our most precious natural resource will lead to a more livable, healthy, and economically vibrant region. I believe that trusting people and refocusing government to ensure that people get what they need to thrive must take priority in our region. If we do not do this, we may follow a common pattern in the industrial age of using up our natural resources and then wondering where they went.

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Dr. Kwame McKenzie is CEO of the Wellesley Institute. A physician, researcher, policy advisor, and academic, McKenzie works to improve population health and health services. He is also a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and Director of Health Equity at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). He has authored five books and has been a columnist for the Guardian and the Timesonline in the U.K.

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