CROYDON COMMENTARY: It has still been possible to lead a ‘mentally healthy lifestyle’, even under pandemic conditions. RICHARD PACITTI offers some helpful advice
So perhaps it’s worth considering what we know about good mental health, and how this might be applied to help those affected and lives changed by covid lockdowns and restrictions.
Good mental health is a lot more than the absence of mental health problems.
The World Health Organization’s definition is: “Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community…
“Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life.”
Our mental health might be something we take for granted, but, in the same way that we can adopt a lifestyle that is good for our physical health and reduce the chance of developing certain physical illnesses, it is also possible to lead what might be called a “mentally healthy lifestyle”.
We are all probably aware of what a physically healthy lifestyle would look like: taking exercise, not overeating or smoking, drinking sensibly, eating our five portions of fruit and veg a day, getting proper sleep…
The evidence is that if we do this, we will reduce the likelihood of developing cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Most people are probably less sure of what the mental health equivalent of a healthy lifestyle might look like. Fortunately, the answer to this has been well-described by the New Economics Foundation in the “Five Ways to Well Being”. These are:
We are social beings and need to connect with other people. Isolating ourselves from others tends to increase the chances of depression.
It’s unclear whether connecting online works as well as connecting in the real world with real people.
Exercising, dancing, walking, gardening and other forms of physical activity, all possible in some manner even during lockdown, do immense good for our mental as well as our physical health.
For me, walking has been extremely important during the last year.
Not only has it maintained my physical health, but it has been essential for mental health, too. Walking is easy for most people to do, and the more you do, the fitter you become and the more your mental health benefits.
I’ve recently read a couple of really good books on the subject. In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. There’s an interesting BBC series called Winter Walks. I would recommend it.
Be aware of what is going on around you.
Try to live in the moment, rather than concentrating too much on things in the past or worrying too much about the future. Being in nature is particularly good for us.
Developing new skills is really good for our mental health and there’s some evidence it might help fend off Dementia too.
Doing a good turn for other people, as well as helping that person, is good for the person who does the good deed. This can cover everything from volunteering to getting involved with a litter pick or checking on a vulnerable neighbour. During COVID restrictions a lot of people have reported feeling more connected to their local community and that they would like to do more to support things locally.
Many activities can combine a number of the five ways. Having a walk with another person, even better if you can do so near nature, covers probably four (you could try to learn the banjo as you walked, too). Working on an allotment might cover all five.
This is a mental state in which a person is fully absorbed and immersed in a task to such a degree that time seems to go by quickly. It’s almost the opposite of boredom – where time seems to drag. Examples of flow-inducing activity can be very personal, but might include doing puzzles, gardening, doing arts and crafts activities, playing a musical instrument, playing sport or fishing. This concept is useful for all of us and is used by health and social care professionals, too.
It might involve using arts and crafts, music, gardening as part of therapy. People taking part in such activities are able to “escape” from thoughts and worries that they find troubling and gain respite.
Someone I know was, in pre-lockdown days, having a hard time coping after his daily visits to hospital to visit his father, who was dying from cancer. He soon started taking a couple of golf clubs in the back of his car, and on the way home after a visit took a short detour to a driving range. “For an hour or so, the only thing I could concentrate on was trying to hit that little white ball,” he said.
“For a short time, all my worries were set to one side. I never got much better at golf, but I know I felt better for doing it.”
This illustrates how some of the techniques used in mental health services have “lay” versions that we can engage in without having to access a mental health professional.
Someone else told me that the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, that they provided contained many elements of what her mother used to call “counting your blessings”.
Sometimes, talking to a friend or a colleague can be just as effective as receiving formal therapy. In fact, our mental health services have to tread a careful path between providing prompt access to effective treatment when people need it, but then ensure that people don’t become too reliant or dependent upon that treatment.
It might be argued that the treatments provided by the statutory services (medication and therapy) are not what actually makes people better. These treatments provide the stepping stones so that people can get back to work or study, or make or maintain social contacts – and it is taking part in these ordinary, everyday activities that creates good mental health.
When writing about well-being or happiness, others have concentrated on the need that we all have for a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. A reason to get up, get washed, get dressed and get out into the world.
Experiencing a mental health problem can mean that people don’t do these things. They stay indoors, they become isolated and disconnected from their work, study, hobbies and the company of others. Their lives become “unreal” or “abnormal”.
Covid restrictions – especially the prolonged lockdowns that we have all endured since March last year – create situations that, in many ways, are the least likely to promote good mental health. To a great extent, they replicate the unreal world that, pre-covid, a person experiencing a mental health problem was likely to find themselves in. It should be no surprise then that curtailing mentally healthy lifestyles is leading to an increase in poor mental health.
But, it’s not all bad.
The positives might include; a) more time spent with family, (b) an opportunity to “re-set” and think about priorities in life, (c) having the time to take an hour or so each day for exercise, and (d) being more focused on the “local” – local shops, local community, local parks and open spaces.
The negatives might include; a) missing the social contact with work colleagues, (b) for those living alone, an increase in loneliness and isolation, (c) blurring of the lines between home and work – no “breathing space” between the two, (d) relying on IT and technology too much and missing the nuance of real contact.
For people being furloughed, there seems to be some evidence that being paid to stay at home, as attractive as this might seem, doesn’t always suit everyone. Without the structure and routine of work and the sense of purpose it brings, some people become bored and listless and this, coupled with loneliness and isolation, can lead to depression.
Other elements of lockdown such as school closures and people being unable to visit loved ones seem to have very few benefits and quite a lot of disbenefits.
I think we need to think about some of the positives of lockdown and focus on how we might capitalise on these, while understanding how we can use well-being techniques to overcome some of the more negative elements of covid restrictions.
- On Saturday, Richard Pacitti considers the challenges offered to our mental health by the “new normal”
- Richard Pacitti, right, spent all his working life in the voluntary sector, including 30 years at Mind in Croydon, where he was chief executive until he retired in April 2020. During this time, he worked closely with statutory colleagues on strategic issues and was involved with a number of local and national initiatives to improve health and social care
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