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HEALTH| 10.10.2023

“People brag about going to therapy, and this is a big step forward”

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Interview with Luis Rojas Marcos, Psychiatrist

He is a strong advocate of the benefits of talking, even to yourself. He also recommends having high-quality social relationships, helping others, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle through exercise and diet. These are a few tips from Spanish psychiatrist Luis Rojas Marcos for leading a happier, more fulfilling life.

LUIS ROJAS MARCOSSmiling and full of life. This is our first impression of Luis Rojas Marcos, who just returned to the Big Apple, his home for the past 55 years. The Spanish psychiatrist, who just turned 80, acknowledges that he is still quite active. Since he doesn’t have a work schedule, he combines teaching at the university with medicine, writing, coaching, and research, which continues to play a key role in improving people’s well-being.

We chatted with him on World Mental Health Day to find out the keys to taking care of our emotional health and improving our quality of life.

On days like today, we are reminded that good health is the foundation of a full and satisfactory life. How would you define a person who has good mental health?  

Having good mental health, above all, means accepting yourself and others, and feeling satisfied with life in general. It’s important to remember this on days like today, which calls attention to a universal human right, one that provides well-being, security, tranquility and peace, and which undoubtedly helps to make society more aware of the value of harmonious coexistence.

Is research moving forward?  

In the past 50 years, very significant progress has been made in the field of mental health, not only in diagnosing and treating illnesses, but also in improving the emotional health of the population. But we need to keep working on the stigma surrounding mental illness, which is still a barrier that prevents many people from seeking professional help, since they perceive it as a sign of weakness. In New York, for example, there are people who brag about going to therapy, and this is definitely a big sign of progress.

In your books, you emphasize the importance of talking.

I always emphasize that talking to communicate or get things off your chest is very healthy and therapeutic, and speaking kindly to yourself can improve your self-esteem and contribute to your well-being. It has been proven that extroverts not only have a better quality of life, but also live longer. Spanish women, for example, have the second longest life expectancy in the world, an average of 86 years. I can only conclude that they live longer because they talk more.   

Loneliness is the new silent pandemic. How does it impact mental health? What can we do to counteract it?           

We have to distinguish between being alone and feeling lonely. Both social isolation and feeling lonely affect physical and mental health and increase mortality. You can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people, and this feeling has a significant impact on your mood. And this is where you can slide into depression, which, in my opinion, is the most terrible illness a person can face, because it robs you of hope, the natural force that keeps you excited and motivated to be alive. That’s why suicide is the worst outcome of this illness. When somebody around you is isolated and lonely, the first thing you need to do is to confirm that there is a problem, and then take control and prepare an action plan.

Many of us automatically respond “I’m good” when asked how we’re doing, without admitting that we might be going through a tough time. Should we be more honest? Would that help us to manage our emotions better? 

In many countries, that question is used as a polite greeting, so it’s not necessary to go into detail, and that way you can maintain a healthy distance. The inclination to share personal issues is conditioned by our personalities and social conventions. In any case, talking about the feelings that overwhelm us is an effective strategy for self-care. We can not only get things off our chest, but also receive support from others and manage them better. Verbalizing our discomfort is often the first step on the path to managing our emotions. In certain cultures, such as the United States, where well-being is idealized as personal success, complaining about emotional issues in social settings often implies failure. Therefore, we see resistance to sharing feelings of worry or unease.

What can we do to prevent mental illnesses?

I believe that providing clear, reliable information is fundamental, as this counteracts feelings of helplessness and uncertainty, which generate so much anguish. That’s where mental health professionals and institutions play a fundamental role, as do the media and opinion leaders.

Maybe we should embrace the philosophy of being in the “here and now.”

Charles Darwin, in his work “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” (1872), states that one day he asked a small child what was meant by being in good spirits. The child said, “it is laughing, talking, and kissing.” I believe it would be hard to give a more tangible definition of well-being in the here and now.

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