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When sickness strikes, it is a great relief to find that treatments are available. Warmth can ease the common cold, antibiotics can fight bacterial infections, and surgery can realign a broken bone. Last spring I dislocated my shoulder, but since then physiotherapy has helped me regain full use of my arm. New treatments are introduced all the time, looking at everything from stroke rehabilitation to chlamydia. These help improve the lives of countless people across every continent.
However, it is far better to prevent sickness rather than treat it. I am extremely grateful for the help of my physiotherapist in re-strengthening my shoulder, but I would have far preferred not to dislocate it in the first place. Mankind might well have discovered a treatment for smallpox, but everyone is far more satisfied knowing the disease itself has been eradicated. Our approach to mental health should be no different, as prevention must take priority over treatment.
On October 10th, we celebrated World Mental Health Day. It was incredibly reassuring to see supportive posts flood social media and the British government announce its first ever Suicide Prevention Minister. Over the past half-decade, Britain’s change in attitude has been truly astounding. For the first time in modern history, mental health is recognised as a genuine issue requiring genuine attention.
Each year, one in four of us experience some sort of mental health problem. More people feel comfortable enough to ask for support, thus the need for good treatment has never been greater. Once a problem is flagged there are two main streams of treatment—counselling and medication. Together, these have improved millions of lives and their value cannot be understated, yet neither are faultless. Counselling is not yet readily available to all of those who need it, whilst antidepressants can bring serious side effects and withdrawal symptoms.
Few would argue against the idea that it is better to protect our mental health in the first place and thus minimise the need for treatments. When our mental health does waver, treatments are vital and it is extremely important that those in need feel confident and validated enough to seek support. Furthermore, mental health issues can never be fully eradicated and are never the fault of those who suffer. However, as a society we must do more to care for each other’s mental well-being before it reaches harmful levels.
To prevent against heart disease we are advised to eat healthy and exercise regularly. In the same way, there are lifestyle changes which can minimise the chances of us developing anxiety or depression. These are:
- Regular exercise and a healthy diet. There is truth to the phrase ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. Just 10 minutes of exercise can begin to have an effect on mental well-being. Similarly, eating less processed foods and more fruit and veg can help you feel more positive in the longer-term. Those who smoke are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
- Spending time outdoors. In twenty-first century Britain we can easily become detached from the natural world. Taking the time to walk through a park or any rural area can dramatically improve your mood. The better quality air and relaxation can have very positive effects.
- Sleeping well. If you think you may suffer from sleeping disorders such as insomnia or narcolepsy, seek help about how best to tackle this (the Mental Health Foundation website offers good advice on this). Getting enough sleep plays a huge impact on mental health.
- Being kind and (where possible) surrounding ourselves with kind people. This is perhaps the most obvious piece of advice, but it can be the most difficult. Checking up on our loved ones regularly, standing up against bullying, and opening up to mental health discussions can help countless people face their issues before things escalate. In short, a kinder society will be a happier one, and the change must start with each one of us.
- Find a hobby/interest. Keeping ourselves busy is an excellent way to protect our mental well-being. Joining a local interest group, a sports team or volunteering can help give our lives meaning, and can provide a sense of belonging within a community.
Once again, it is important to stress that these tips cannot cure all mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are never a choice and those in need of help must be given it with the utmost compassion. Not everyone is able to follow the advice above, but those of us who can make these changes should, even those who have never experienced mental illness themselves. Making a small effort can help minimise the risks. There is no set formula to follow, thus we must each discover what works best for us. For some people taking an occasional run around a local park is helpful, whilst others might set aside an hour a day to meditate or read.
Regardless, we must each take these steps to care for ourselves and those around us before things escalate. Only by changing our attitudes and behaviour can we tackle the causes of mental illness, rather than simply managing its symptoms.
For further advice on the issues discussed in this article, please visit one of the following: