Dr. Bankole Johnson: “Mental wellness is not the absence of mental illness”

Mental wellness is not the absence of mental illness. We are all born with a set of psychological strengths and weaknesses. Unlike some authorities, I believe that some of our weaknesses keep us grounded and “normal” and only need to be understood not “worked out.” Mental wellness also cannot be achieved without a dedicated effort […]

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Mental wellness is not the absence of mental illness. We are all born with a set of psychological strengths and weaknesses. Unlike some authorities, I believe that some of our weaknesses keep us grounded and “normal” and only need to be understood not “worked out.” Mental wellness also cannot be achieved without a dedicated effort and cannot happen by accident. As an example, if as a psychiatrist I wrote a letter that went like this — “To whom it may concern. In my capacity as a psychiatrist, I am happy to inform you that Mr. Incredibly Capable (a fictitious name) has been certified as being completely mentally well and is peerless in terms of emotional balance, decisions making, and mental fortitude.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Dr. Bankole Johnson.

Professor Bankole A. Johnson (DSc., M.D.) is a licensed and board-certified physician and psychiatrist, and a leading neuroscientist with expertise in brain wellness and performance. He is a global authority in psychiatry, pharmacology, curbing addictions and personalized wellness. Dr. Johnson recently debuted his “Six Rings” book series (, which provides clues into the complexity of the brain, how perturbations to it can impair performance, and how it can be healed.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My initial career path was not treatment. I had decided to study the arts and perhaps move on to be a scholar in history and literature. That would have allowed me to branch off and do a law degree. I had received a scholarship to study law and at the young age of 15 years, I was already doing languages at the Catholic University in Paris. My father however insisted I become a doctor. So, I was sent to rapidly study sciences to become a doctor. As I had no strong formal science background, I taught myself and my grades were good enough to have me start medical school at the age of 17 years. I graduated 5 years later and began a path in intensive care treatment. In my last year in University I lived under the bell tower (no joke — this was like something out of the hunchback of Notre Dame) for free so long as I looked after psychiatric patients before going to my classes. I had to do this because both my parents had died suddenly and I was left with no money having previously had a privileged life. The time working with psychiatric patients in the morning, before they saw the doctor, gave me insights into the secret life of people living in an asylum. I think that was my draw to Psychiatry. Along the way, I could not resist getting a Master of Philosophy degree from the University of London in neurological sciences and computational mathematics (I later got inducted into the Texas Hall of fame for Science and Mathematics). My foray into addiction was during my time at Oxford University doing research on brain science. My supervisor gave me the task of “curing” alcoholism for my doctoral degree. I have not succeeded in doing that to this day, but that work has formed the basis of over 80 global patents. Nevertheless, I did get my doctorate, and that was followed some years later by another doctoral degree in general neuroscience. My approach to understanding brain wellness has, therefore, been based on a rigorous scientific understanding of how the brain works in both health and disease. During the course of my career, I have been board certified in addiction treatment, psychiatry, and forensic treatment, the latter having given me the mind of a medical detective to reconstruct how and why some unfortunate act happened. In my new book, “Six Rings,” through the allegorical character, Bastian, I relay some of my interesting life experiences and lessons to inform the reader. The book, although written in a fictional style, is heavily researched for scientific accuracy. In “Six Rings,” Bastian displays his love of music and art (from his original inspiration and training) and brings them to bear to understand the core and individualism of his patients, and how best to assist them with what they might be afflicted with. Bastian believes that the brain needs to be trained to be kept in optimum shape through the right mindset, foods, and interventions.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are many interesting stories and some of them are displayed in “Six Rings,” and it is hard to make a choice as to what is the most interesting. One of the stories that stands out was on my trip to South Africa on behalf of the USA government just after apartheid, and with Nelson Mandela as its first black President. During that visit, I traveled to Transkei and experienced a community village of African women who through making beverages for their men folk — who had been sent away to work in the mines during apartheid — had developed high rates of alcohol use disorder. Their children also often had fetal alcohol syndrome. To the untrained eye, these children simply looked a little different, but to an expert it was all obvious. What was truly unique was how inspiring the women were. They had organized themselves into support groups and had built a remarkable community. Alas, with all our technology, we had little to teach them. That visit did however result in an ongoing research project funded by NIH which was twinned with Washington D.C., also which had high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome for entirely different reasons. Clinically, one of my intriguing cases, told in “Six Rings” so I will not spoil it here, is of a patient who states taking a herbal treatment, with dramatic consequences on his behavior and relationships. Working out what that key herbal intoxicant was I believe saved his life and future prosperity.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

treatment is not often imbued with humorous events and most mistakes do not have a good outcome. One of the most humorous was that I had not studied about how to do a particular neurological test in which the patient tracks your finger across the visual field. It’s part of what is called a past-pointing test. Having failed to do my homework and being asked to demonstrate this test in front of class, I improvised, and asked the patient to follow my own nose. Not only did I fall over trying to administer this test but so did the patient, who came to no harm, and everyone burst out laughing. At the time, I felt rather silly and embarrassed. But it was a good teaching moment for me. It taught me to always ask a question if I did not know rather than guess.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people have contributed to my success that it is tough to single some of them out. Perhaps, however, my strongest influence was Professor Philip Cowen whilst I was at Oxford University. Even though I knew I was intellectually fortunate, he pushed and encouraged me. He recognized my loneliness at that stage of my career and was a friend. I remember working with him to get a scholarship to do my doctoral studies. Everything counted on this for my career as I could not fund my own research career. I remember we worked on it on a Sunday just before the submission on Monday. I drafted the project with him. He told me to describe it whilst he typed. We did it once, and as he read it over he turned to me and said, “This is like ‘Mozart’ in science,” and made no correction. We submitted it on that Monday, and later it was announced that I had got the scholarship. After that time, I gained the confidence to write or do anything just once. Even “Six Rings,” like my scientific papers and grant filings, was written just once. Phil Cowen gave me great confidence in myself and my abilities. Of course, like everyone there can be minor mistakes in what I do, but my belief is that the overall message is usually clearly stated and executed.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

There is a well worn adage that you need to do what you love to avoid burnout but I think this is a cliché. My belief is that you need to develop your mind to be a source of constant curiosity, and to get joy from uncovering simple facts. It is through assembling simplicity that complexity develops but at the root, it is important to have a mind that can entertain itself, and grow naturally. In every hour, I religiously take a break after 50 min and use the remaining 10 min to simply let my mind wonder, dream, and create. I think it is also important to have interests outside of treatment, and make a conscious and determined effort to develop those skills. In “Six Rings,” the allegorical character Bastian reveals his love for music and the arts, and indeed, in December, a music compilation of “Six Rings” will be released. Contrary to some people, I do not believe that a holiday away avoids burnout. I believe that the avoidance of burnout is based on balance and that must be strived for in every moment and time. One of my favorite sayings to myself is to ask if my response is “proportional” and I teach my students the art of “proportionality” to negotiate work and personal relationships.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Many authorities talk or write about how they create an environment that is idealized from some other theory or book. I believe that the best environment is one that is developed through a culture of always seeking to improve in every way. A culture that learns from its mistakes, and that champions the people who work in it. A culture where even the leader would wish to work as an employee because it is rich with opportunity. To achieve that means taking great pains to assemble the “right” people and give them an opportunity to share their own vulnerabilities. This is a continuous task that must be continued, especially when things are going well, as that is the emotional reserve that the team has to draw upon to negotiate any troubled waters.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

Mental wellness is not the absence of mental illness. We are all born with a set of psychological strengths and weaknesses. Unlike some authorities, I believe that some of our weaknesses keep us grounded and “normal” and only need to be understood not “worked out.” Mental wellness also cannot be achieved without a dedicated effort and cannot happen by accident. As an example, if as a psychiatrist I wrote a letter that went like this — “To whom it may concern. In my capacity as a psychiatrist, I am happy to inform you that Mr. Incredibly Capable (a fictitious name) has been certified as being completely mentally well and is peerless in terms of emotional balance, decisions making, and mental fortitude. Mr. Capable would make an outstanding candidate for your new colony, and will be able to withstand whatever challenges are placed in front of him. Yours faithfully, Professor Bankole Johnson.” At first glance, this letter might itself seem ridiculous and I would argue no one would take it seriously. Yet, the very same people who would find it ridiculous might harbor a desire to be like “Mr. Capable” or be thought of as such. Hence, a state of complete mental wellness is a goal to strive for, and it is the journey towards it that will bring greater health, understanding, and comfort. There are five practical ways to increase your mental wellness: A) Proper Nutrition — the right brain foods are not only important for wellness but can enhance mood and decisional balance; B) Emotional resilience — this can be achieved through appropriate life coaching, exposure to learning, and striving to achieve; C) Restoration — this is needed to ensure physical balance in the sensory world (e.g sleep, touch, relationships, feel, etc.) as well as optimized physical health; D) Specialized techniques to improve emotional balance which might range from holistic tasks such as yoga and mediation but also can include special equipment like magnetic stimulation and hyperbaric oxygen (as appropriate) and E) Proportionality and balance with the right “stimulation” — which can be achieved through the combination of all these factors, which is described in “Six Rings” as the “Prepare Method.”

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

I am presuming that by retirement you mean individuals over the age of 65 years, and the question is about how to maintain mental wellness in succeeding years. For most people, retirement comes as a shock because it is a sudden cessation. It is important that retirement be planned several years in advance with a change in activities to match. An important connection is family. Whilst the best family life is enriching, one full of strife and consternation is not helpful to mental or any kind of health. It is important to reinforce the key relationships you wish to have continuously, and some might even be new ones, and the key being to determine which ones enrich your life. It is not important to keep every relationship you have ever had. We all change, and with that there is a shift in the friendship or relationship. Most of our relationships need to be re-orientated in retirement, especially to cope with greater interaction and need for support. Diet needs to be optimized for brain health in retirement to prevent mental deterioration from disease. Specific foods are helpful, like nuts, fish, green plants, and a change to a more ketotic diet. Mental stimulation combined with light aerobic exercise prevents brain deterioration. Compartmentalizing stress — this can sometimes be difficult to do with “go getters” but it is important to remind oneself that he or she has been successful and can overcome any of these life issues. For a further elaboration, please follow the “Six Rings” books series.

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

In teen years, the brain is still developing. It takes to the age of about 25 years for the brain to be in the “right place” and work as a mature brain. Alcohol and drugs of abuse are well documented to slow or arrest brain development. The later you wait before you take alcohol, the better it is for your brain. In teens and emerging adults, there is evidence that increased oxygenation to the brain stimulates brain development. Not only is it important to eat the “right foods” but the emphasis here is also on appropriate exercise and physical wellness. For preteens and children diet and mental strum;ation are exceedingly important. The brain needs to be provided with the right amounts of omega-3 and other essential fatty acids and vitamins. It is difficult to get this right just by food alone and dietary supplements are very useful in children. Trace elements like zinc, chromium, and magnesium that optimize brain help are critical to provide to children as nutritional supplements. Mental stimulation for children is not simply school work but abstract and associative learning from tasks, puzzles, adventures, excursions, exposure to the arts, and the importance of music is often forgotten. There really is evidence that some types of classical, especially Mozart, seems to be particularly good for the brain; however, research continues to find other musical forms that also would be enriching mentally.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

The book with the greatest impact on me is Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is an allegorical take of the importance of making the “right choices.” I read this book earlier in my life but it was not until my 40s that I fully understood the message. I have used this in my own life and teachings to explain that the opposite of free will is not having any will at all, but that free will brings about far more responsibilities. Additionally, it has taught me that change is natural and should not be avoided. Embracing change reduces stress, and increases the chances of fulfillment.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Thank you for being so kind. I suppose that I have been on a “mission” for most of my adult life. That “mission” is to enrich how we feel about the uniqueness of one another, to create a mind that is balanced and proportional, and to strive for the mental resilience of all humans. If it were a movement, it would be a philosophy that merges individualizing humanistic elements into a force that focuses on the “right balance,” and that treats the brain/mind as a gift to provide everyone with the fullest experience of happiness and belonging.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Never give up and stay focused on your dream.” I was fortunate to see a wonderful woman who worked for me overcome a terrifying cancer in the middle of her chest by the strength of her commitment to be there for her teenage daughters. Perhaps she was lucky and had a spontaneous remission but her faith, spirit, and overall positivity even in the face of likely death was awe inspiring. Her lesson teaches me each and every day to dream and wish for what you are striving for as the natural forces of the earth are “listening” to that “energy.”

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on Instagram, @sixringsbooks. The best way to understand my ethos is to read the “Six Rings” books series. Every month, I also write an article for Haute Living magazine as well as other scientific texts and materials. Typically, my social media platforms inform on my endeavors, and I hope that some of you will take an interest.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!


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