Mental Health Awareness
It seems fitting that last month, April, was Stress Awareness Month in the UK, just over a year after the first lockdown. This week, 10th-16th May, is Mental Health Awareness Week. One thing we can thank the COVID-19 pandemic for is that it has brought mental health awareness to the forefront of public consciousness.
While some people found the lockdowns gave them time and space to revaluate and reset, others are suffering from anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
But successive lockdowns are not the cause of all mental health problems. People have been suffering forever.
It’s only recently that mental health has become a mainstream topic and has started to lose its stigma. It’s only recently that people have begun to recognise that good mental health is not a given. It needs to be worked on, particularly in times of stress. And that there is no shame in asking for help.
What is good mental health?
Good mental health is a delicate balancing act. The charity Mind describes it as “being generally able to think, feel and react in the ways that you need and want to live your life”.
It’s not about never having a bad day, or feeling low. There are certain things we can do to maximise our chances of maintaining the balance. But when your ability to live your life is impacted by your thoughts, mood, or reactions, it may be time to seek help.
Ways we can help ourselves
1. Mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, and journaling
The more aware we are of our thought processes and how we think about ourselves and our situations, the more we can improve our self-awareness and self-esteem. Experts recommend practicing mindfulness and meditation, doing breathing exercises, and keeping track of our thoughts, moods, sleep, and nutrition in a journal.
These can all help to calm anxiety, reduce stress, and help us become more cognisant of times and situations that impact our ability to cope. There are plenty of apps that can help with mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises. You’ll find beautiful journals here or more functional ones here. Or make your own.
2. Exercise and nature
It’s no secret that exercise is good for you but it doesn’t just make you fitter and healthier, it also helps with mental health. Increased blood flow to the brain during exercise makes you more alert during exercise and more focused afterwards. Endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine are released, which contribute to improved mood.
And if you can exercise outside you get the benefit of being out in nature. Time in green spaces has been shown to help decrease cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase endorphin and dopamine production.
It might have been forced upon us but how many people will say they resent the time they have dedicated to walking, or gardening, or just sitting outside with a coffee during the lockdowns?
3. Nutrition, hydration, sleep, and rest
What we eat and drink, and how much rest we get can have a profound effect on how we feel. A diet that includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, fibre and complex carbohydrates won’t just nourish your body. It will nourish your mind too.
Avoiding foods that are processed and/or high in sugar, caffeine, or other substances that cause sugar spikes, reduce nutrient uptake or cause ‘unhelpful’ chemicals to be released will help. A healthy diet nourishes the microbiome in the gut which has been shown to impact stress and anxiety levels.
Getting enough sleep and rest is also vital. Practice good sleep hygiene by banning screens from the bedroom, following a relaxing bedtime routine and if possible keep the same hours even at the weekend.
4. Avoid triggers, be kind to yourself, and learn to say no
You will probably already know what sort of things are unhelpful to your mental health. Maybe it’s social media, or certain friends. Maybe it’s the news, alcohol or drugs. If you are not aware of things that trigger you try starting a journal and see if you can find any patterns.
If you need a break from social media, take one. If you have ‘toxic’ friends who always make you feel bad about yourself then it’s time to ditch those ‘friends’ and surround yourself with people who don’t have that effect. If you need help with drugs or alcohol reach out to someone who will understand.
Be kind to yourself and know your limits. You can’t do everything and sometimes it’s important to learn to say no. Give yourself the best conditions for good mental health.
5. Get help if you need it - medication and therapy
Talking therapies can help with the causes and effects of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Your doctor will be able to advise on the type of therapy that would benefit you, whether it’s counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or psychoanalysis.
If you can find a local charity with a programme like the Hope in Depression one below make sure you look into it.
Medication may be necessary and shouldn’t be seen as a last resort or ‘failure’. If you hurt yourself or have a physical illness you seek help and may take something to improve your symptoms. Mental health is the same.
Hope in Depression
Hope in Depression is a charity that was set up after its founder suffered from depression and felt there were not enough resources for people and their families who were going through similar experiences. It’s based in the south of England but since the start of the pandemic is accessed online.
They hold six-week courses of two hours each week that cover all aspects of depression. They can be attended by both sufferers and supporters. Each element of the course is hosted by an expert speaker with first hand experience of mental illness and the impact it has. It is accessible to all and delivered without judgement.
Hope in Depression is not currently countrywide but you can apply to host a course so if that is something you could do to support their offering why not get in touch with them.
So if you or someone you are close to needs help, make sure you find help. Even if you just start by confiding in a friend, it’s a start. If you don’t want to confide in a friend, tell a doctor.
There is so much help available out there. Just make sure you find it.