“If we don’t act urgently, by 2030 depression will be the leading illness globally – Mental Health Foundation, 2016.
As promised, I’ve written a blog post in honour of #worldmentalhealthday.
Anyone who knows me knows that mental health is incredibly close to my heart having suffered with depression and generalised anxiety disorder since I was 16. I also know many people who have suffered/do suffer with their mental health, I work in a children’s and adolescents mental health hospital, and have worked and volunteered in care homes and mental health forensic services in the past.
I know firsthand that mental health illnesses do not discriminate; they can affect anyone, which is why it’s important that it’s something that everyone is aware of and open to talking about.
Today is world mental health day, so if you haven’t before, today is a good day to start talking, to start listening, and to start breaking the stigma.
What is mental health?
When you hear the words “mental health” what do you think of? Criminals? Psychopaths? Crazy people? Insanity? Asylums? Suicide? Now when you think of yourself, do you think of those words too? Probably not. However the fact of the matter is, mental health belongs to everyone; so those words that you first associated with mental health… not even remotely appropriate or accurate.
Everyone has a mental health. This mental health can be positive, it can be negative, it can be fluctuating, it can have good parts and bad parts. But everyone has one.
According to the World Health Organisation mental health is a state of well-being and how an individual realises his/hers potential, can deal with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his/her community. It is a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being. So when you are upset, your mental health is affected. When you are excited, your mental health is affected. When you are bereaved, your mental health is affected. When you are in love, your mental health is affected.
So, to look at this simply….
4 in 4 people have mental health – however this may fluctuate and not always be at 100% capacity, everyone has one.
1 in 4 people have a diagnosed mental health problem – and this is usually what people think about when mental health is mentioned. These are diagnosed illnesses that require professional help.
Having a mental health illness doesn’t mean you’re weak, or pathetic, or vulnerable, or worse than anyone else. I would argue that in the past 7 years since first being diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and depression, I’ve grown into a stronger and more resilient person. Mental health illnesses don’t pick and chose, they don’t care who they affect – they don’t care about your age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or wealth. So just because it doesn’t affect you now, it doesn’t mean it won’t ever directly or indirectly affect you in the future.
Therefore everyone should be educated in the signs and symptoms of mental health problems so you can spot them in yourselves or in a loved one. The five steps of mental health first aid are also helpful, so if you do see the signs and symptoms in someone else then you know how to help.
Signs and symptoms of poor mental health in yourself and in others
There are so many mental health illnesses. The DSM is the Diagnostic Statistical Manual and is the reference professionals use to help diagnose mental illnesses. It contains over 450 illnesses. However, some are more common than others with depression and anxiety disorders being some of the most common. Schizophrenia is rarer, with it affecting 1% of the population, however there are some illnesses that are less common than that and even I haven’t heard of. Others seem obvious, too obvious to even be classed as a mental health problem – nicotine withdrawal, alcoholism, and even premature ejaculation are some unexpected diagnoses located within the DSM.
However, common signs and symptoms to look out for in yourself and others are the following:
– Lack of energy/motivation
– Change in appetite (eating more or eating less)
– General feeling of sadness, numbness, emptiness
– Increasing urges to hurt yourself, speaking about death more, even giving things away and organising finances to prepare for suicide.
– Change in sex drive (becoming more promiscuous or having no sex drive at all)
– Not wanting to socialise, withdrawing from friends and family
– Change in personality – anger problems, tearfulness, elated periods followed by depressive periods
– Panic attacks, or feeling nervous/anxious in different situations
– Strange or different patterns in behaviour; talking about things that have not happened, speaking over their shoulder to someone who is not there, etc.
Looking out for these changes, or even changes in a persons general behaviour or your own is the first step. A person experiencing poor mental health may have poor insight – they cannot see that they are suffering, and they may need someone else to tell them. They also may not realise what help is available or what to do, and this is where you can come in with mental health first aid.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA)
Just like with physical health, first aid can be given by anyone, it does not have to be given by a professional. First aid is the help given to an injured person before medical treatment can be given. The same goes for mental health first aid – it is the help given to someone experiencing a mental health problem before professional help can be obtained.
MHFA isn’t designed for people to become therapists or doctors, but is designed to help people recognise the symptoms of mental health problems (as listed above) and to provide the initial help and support. There are five basic steps to MHFA:
- Assess risk of suicide or self-harm; first aid is about reducing the risk of further harm.
- Listen non-judgementally; mental health is unique for everyone, so listen to their story because it will be different from yours.
- Give reassurance and information; being told it will ‘be okay’ is sort of useless but hearing it helps to know that someone is there for you.
- Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help; as mentioned above, they may not know what help is available. The GP should be their first point of contact, so tell them that.
- Encourage self-help strategies; this seems complicated, but it’s really not. Encouraging them to exercise, eat well, do what they enjoy – read on for more information on how to keep mental health healthy. Mental health illnesses can take enjoyment out of life, help them get it back.
Mental Health – let’s keep it healthy
Now I’ve given some advice on how to help others, I think it’s even more important that you know how to help yourself. You can’t help someone else if you can’t help yourself. Though mental health can affect everyone, and certain mental health illnesses are incurable at the present time (e.g. schizophrenia), there are ways to protect your mental health, and to strengthen your resilience, to not let the mental health illnesses win, and to simply help relieve any symptoms you may have.
Simple changes to your lifestyle can help you to become a generally healthier person and help you to get the most out of life, so that if a mental health problem does effect you, directly or indirectly, it won’t take over it completely.
Self-medication and self-help is the most important part of mental health. GP’s and professionals cannot help someone who does not help themselves, medication, sectioning/hospitalisation and therapy only go so far; it’s as simple as that.
- Eat healthily – I know, it’s drilled into us every single day to eat our 5 a day, plenty of fruit and veg, and cut back on the sugar levels, and stop eating all the damn cake. However, it’s not just to help us lose a bit of weight off the tummy and thighs, or just to help our organs work proficiently, it’s also key to helping our mental health. Good foods such as fruit and vegetables are packed full of vitamins and minerals that wake us up, help our organs run properly, help our brain to keep ticking over efficiently, help our skin look better, give us energy- all of these combined can help us battle mental health problems. Not only does it help our brain and organs, but if it helps us to feel better about ourselves then it is directly linked to mental health. The link between diet and mental health is a clear but understudied one, but any GP will recommend for you to eat healthily when your mental health is suffering.
- Exercise – Ughhhhh, I know, exercise isn’t for everyone…but why not!? The endorphins that are released during exercise makes it the best natural anti-depressant out there (not the mention the cheapest and the one with the least side effects!) It has also been reported that exercising can help schizophrenics cope with their hallucinations, and psychotic episodes also reduce when exercise is introduced into an individuals lifestyle.
You don’t have to go to the gym every single day and pump iron until you feel like your arms are going to drop off, nor do you have to run until your lungs burst and you throw up your intestines. There is no need to become an athlete overnight in order to fight off depression. I mean, you can if you want, and people do, but it’s not necessary. 20 minutes a day of light exercise will do the world of good – not to mention it can be a social thing, which is a bonus!
Go for an evening walk, take the dog out, go for a light jog round the block first thing in the morning, go for a bike ride, play a bit of tennis or badminton, get your boxing gloves out and beat the shit out of a punch bag, buy a workout DVD to do a few times a week, anything! Lack of time, no money, laziness, being too busy…these are all excuses and terrible ones at that, and what’s important to remember is that mental illnesses thrive where you do not.
- Learn – Find a topic you know nothing about, learn everything about it. Get yourself a new hobby that you never thought you could do, do it. Join a new club in town where you know no-one, get to know everyone. There is always more in life to know about, to learn about and to do.
Gaining new skills and knowledge come hand in hand with gaining confidence. Not to mention that a new hobby or skill is the perfect way to keep your mind busy and give you something to look forward to on your days off.
Why do you think I write this blog!? I love psychology, I love writing, I have 3 days off in a row sometimes when everyone else is working with nothing else to do – so instead of sitting in front of the TV like a zombie for 72 hours, or sleeping more than I need to (we’ll come to sleep in a bit because yes there IS such a thing as too much sleep), I keep my mind busy by running this blog and learning more and more about psychology as I do it.
It’s an accomplishment, something to be proud of, something to show off to other people, and something to keep my mind off any negativity that may be lurking in the depths of my head. Go, do it. Start something new today.
- Be mindful – You may or may not have heard of the term “mindfulness”. If you’ve studied psychology, or work in the health care/mental health care sector, then I’d be surprised (and sort of disappointed actually) if you haven’t heard of it.
To be mindful is to simply pay attention and to be aware of the present moment. It involves being aware of your own body and your mind, and by doing this you can notice any changes – negative or positive, and react to them appropriately.
It can make you more aware of yourself, and can also change how you view the world. Look it up, just google “mindfulness techniques” and see how you can change your perspective of your mind, and the world around you.
- Sleep – My undergraduate dissertation looked at the relationships between insomnia, stress, depression and anxiety in students. Sleep has a huge impact on mood, as we all know. If you get only a couple of hours sleep then god forbid anyone who comes into contact with you the next morning. However, if you get enough sleep the next night you should be okay the following day.
But, having an ongoing disruptive sleep pattern can be murderous for your mental health. Sleep is the stage in your brains cycle where it repairs your body; this can involve your skin, muscles, bloody, but also your brain and hormones. It is the stage where your body can try to relax, but also the time where your brain is at it’s busiest making sense of the days events and tomorrows plans. If you don’t give your body and brain enough time to do it’s job, then this can impact no only on your physical health but also your mental health.
In my study, those who had disruptive sleep and symptoms relating to insomnia, also had higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress. However, there are also links between having too much sleep and poor mental health. Oversleeping can leave your body feeling groggy, and tired for the rest of the day. It has been linked to higher levels of depression and poorer mental health in the long term. The recommended amount of sleep is 7-9 hours a night, so to aim for about 8 would be perfect.
- Love life – It sounds corny, but it’s true – life is too short. Do what you want, and do what you enjoy. Find a job that you don’t mind getting out of bed for. Surround yourself with positive people who are willing to support you when you need it. Love them, tell them you love them. Fill your days with things you enjoy, and things you’ve never done before. Leave unhappy relationships behind and don’t dwell on the past. Drink good coffee, and read good books. Stick to your morals and what you believe in, and be yourself.
And if all of this advice doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to ask for help – it really isn’t a big deal! I promise!
Everyone needs it at times, and as I’ve said before – mental health doesn’t discriminate. When I got diagnosed, I was 16, in a relationship, I had a good, happy family life, a huge group of the bestest friends, and I was doing so well in college…So what went wrong!? Nothing. So why me!? Who knows, but it happened and I dealt with it. People spend too long looking for the reasoning of things, instead of just moving on in life. I was so scared to ask for help, but 6 years down the line I am so, so grateful to my little 16 year old self for being brave and talking to mum and getting a GP appointment. Depression comes back and bites me in the arse every now and then, but because my 16 year old self got the ball rolling, I now know what to do each time that black dog comes creeping around the corner.
It’s not easy, I’m not saying that – but it is worth it. The first day of the rest of my life was the day I asked for help.
I hope this post has given you an insight into what mental health is, and what to do about it, and how to improve it. Below are some websites which have helped me with my research; take a look at them, keep learning more about this subject. The websites also give advice on what to do if you need help with your mental health.
Finally; stay safe, break the stigma, and keep talking. Spread the news – asking for help isn’t a big deal, everyone has mental health, and illness doesn’t discriminate.