Psychological Fitness: the dark side and the bright side

Here’s the dark side: suicide: the final solution to unbearable despair.

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By Voula Tsoflias, Ambassador for Corporate Sponsorship at Bounce Forward. Writer of psychological fiction and non-fiction psychology

Here’s the dark side: suicide: the final solution to unbearable despair.

Quick UK stats:


      • Suicide is the biggest cause of death in people aged below thirty-five.

      • Ten percent of diagnosed mentally ill teenagers commit suicide.

      • Half of all life mental health cases are established before the age of fourteen.

    Psychological fitness is the balanced integration of thoughts, emotions and behaviours for optimum resilience and well-being. It incorporates many labels with similar or related meanings: mental fitness, mental health, emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, emotional balance, healthy thinking, psychological health, well-being, resilience.

    Our thoughts feelings and behaviours are in constant interaction. Psychological fitness teaches us how to consciously manage these complex dynamics for health, success and happiness in our own terms.

    The ideas and knowledge that underpin psychological fitness are many and varied, and they go way back to the ancient Greeks: that’s how long we’ve been thinking about it. I want to focus on a particular turning point, that history will show as revolutionary: the birth of positive psychology. This moment came about thirty years ago, when one of our greatest living psychologists, Professor Martin Seligman, a true pioneer, posed a simple question, one of those questions that seems obvious, yet nobody had asked it before:

    Why has psychology focused on the study of what goes wrong with people?

    Why don’t we, instead, focus on what goes right with people?

    (So that we could teach, foster and encourage more of that?)

    From this provocative starting point, Seligman convened a group of eminent psychologists, (including the late great Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of “flow” fame) to study a range of related topics:


        • What are human virtues?

        • What are character strengths?

        • What does happiness mean?

        • What is psychological fitness and how can we teach it?

      The Dark Side

      These ideas rapidly gained attention and traction around the world, so much so that the US Government, alarmed by an increase in teenage suicides in Western countries, sought Seligman’s advice. They asked him to consider two issues:

      How can we identify young people who are vulnerable to suicide?
      How can we use psychology to support and strengthen them so that they don’t take their own lives?
      The shocking figures presented at the start of this article, represent the extreme end of the mental illness spectrum. Many more people suffer from less severe mental symptoms: worry, anxiety and depression, sometimes in low grade daily symptoms, sometimes in more severe episodes; sometimes both. The vast majority of us are not mentally ill; but most of us know the torment of mental and emotional turmoil. That’s a lot of human suffering, and, fortunately, psychology can help us find ways to bear and manage such difficult times.

      The Bright Side

      Working with his research team at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman reported back:

      We can successfully apply positive psychology methods to educate children in a programme that makes an impact in two ways:


          1. increasing their resilience and, therefore, reducing their susceptibility to mental illness

          1. teaching them a set of healthy thinking habits and life skills that will increase their capacity for a healthy, fulfilled future

        We should do this during childhood, ideally just before the turbulent years of adolescence, effectively inoculating them against depression, anxiety and related psychological disturbances.

        As there is no reliable way of identifying which children are susceptible to suicide and mental illness, we must educate all children in these methods.

        Subsequently, Seligman and his team developed the Penn Resiliency Programme, training teachers to teach children an ambitious programme of healthy thinking habits. The Penn Resiliency Programme has been adapted for application in schools, health and social programmes and, in the USA it is offered to all soldiers and their families.

        In the UK, Bounce Forward used the underpinning research from positive psychology to pioneer practical examples that respond to ‘what is psychological fitness and how can we teach it?’ Over the last thirteen years we have directed research, in partnership with the London School of Economics, to devise reliable approaches that are forming a positive system of change.

        From that solid evidence base, we train teachers and equip them with the teaching and learning resources for psychological fitness; and we support parents to develop their own resilience, and provide practical solutions that can be used at home.

        Bounce Forward is on a mission to see schools teach psychological fitness as part of core education. What we do goes against the grain of traditional education: we are shaking things up to influence education policy, firmly placing the resilience of young people (and teachers) at the heart of what is taught in school. Why? Because the next generation of adults needs to be able to overcome setbacks and make the most of their opportunities.

        If you would like to be part of this revolution in education, helping to equip our next generation of children with the psychological life skills they need. Please find out more – Healthy Minds or Teach Mental Resilience are a great place to start.

        If you are ready to help personally, you can support us now at Just Giving.

        Or, if you are interested in discussing corporate sponsorship, contact me at [email protected]

        A final thought: if we could raise £9m, every child in our country could be educated in this method. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

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