Dealing with a mental health concern may not be quite as simple as simply seeing a psychologist or taking prescribed medication (although these are important steps). To enjoy better mental health, a broad approach to looking after ourselves is required — one which not only looks at all parts of physical and mental wellbeing, but which also emphasises prevention.
That’s the message in new research recently published in The Lancet Psychiatry, one of the world’s leading mental health publications. Not only will looking after your physical and mental wellbeing make you happier — it might also help you live longer (up to 20 years, in fact).
Prevention is better than the cure
The findings were reported in a major research project titled The Lancet Psychiatry Commission: a blueprint for protecting physical health in people with mental illness (registration required). It examined the physical health of people with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia and found that they consistently had higher rates of physical health problems. These included ailments like heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Consequently, people with mental illnesses were likely to have shorter life expectancy due to (among other things) the higher prevalence of physical health problems.
The link between physical problems (like chronic disease) and poor mental health is well known. For this reason, the researchers argue, there is a case for mental health care to include not just traditional treatment (such as therapy and counselling), but to also include preventative measures like help with diet, exercise and smoking.
Looking after your wellbeing
Wellbeing is a broad term that refers to things like satisfaction in life, having a sense of purpose and direction, and generally just feeling ok. Since physical health can affect our mental health (and vice versa), wellbeing means being comfortable, healthy and happy, whether it’s through physical activity, mental relaxation, or both.
Here are some ways that you can work on your wellbeing.
Try to eat right
Poor diet is linked to a huge number of physical health conditions, from diabetes to heart disease to cancer. Trying to eat right and staying healthy is just common sense. However, another benefit to healthy eating is that feeling physically healthier tends to make us more likely to feel mentally healthier too.
A heap of information about healthy eating is available online, although be wary of companies selling diet plans and quick-fix solutions that are too good to be true (or could even damage your health). If you’re unsure, stick to places like government sites that publish reputable information.
Stay physically active
The mental health benefits of exercise are well known. Quite simply, regular exercise can improve your mood and make you feel more energetic. Obviously it also has many health benefits.
Staying physically active doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym every second night. It can be as simple as a brisk walk. Even a small amount of daily walking can provide health benefits.
The important thing to remember is that the best form of exercise is the exercise that is done regularly — even a small amount is still better than none at all.
An estimated 5.6 million Australians experience loneliness while seven per cent (that’s one in 14) are believed to feel lonely all the time. There’s also growing evidence that loneliness is fast becoming a major problem in society, so much so that, as with obesity, its effects could be the next major public health crisis.
Humans are social creatures and so we tend to crave social connection. To that end, consider reconnecting with friends by writing a letter, email, or social media message to see how they’re going. Plan or get involved in an annual event. Or share important news with your friends first before you share it online.
Similarly, check up on friends you haven’t heard from for a while to make sure they’re doing well. A great example is the #CheckYourMates campaign that began in Townsville to help veterans and ex-members of the Defence community.
Work on your sleep
Healthy sleep has an incredibly important role in our wellbeing. The mental health benefits of sleep — or rather, the benefits of good sleep — are well known and have a significant effect on physical and mental health, from memory to mood to how likely we are to experience inflammation.
Improving your sleep can in turn improve your physical health and mental health. Working on it can start with simple steps, like avoiding smartphone use in bed and avoiding alcohol or caffeine in the evening. If it’s more serious, consider seeing a professional.
Smoking, alcohol or illicit drugs
Smokes, grog and drugs contain chemicals that affect your mood. Your behaviour changes not only when you consume these (such as after a few drinks), but in many cases can also do so when your body craves a particular substance. For example, anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows how hard it can be to break that addiction.
If these are a concern, consider looking into treatment to break the cycle. Again, as with getting exercise and eating right, people who feel healthier physically are more likely to feel better mentally. Indeed, it’s very common for people who have quit smoking to call it “the best thing I ever did”.
Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.