Time for some alarming stats: Three out of four suicides are by men. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35. Men are less likely to seek help for mental health problems. Only one in five men said they would take time off work to get medical help for anxiety or feeling low and 34% of men quizzed say they’d be embarrassed to take time off work for mental health concerns.
It’s incredible, really, that we still find it difficult to talk about, and seek help for, our mental health. If there was anything else wrong with your body, you’d seek the appropriate medical help, so your brain should be no different. And if someone was embarrassed about having a cold you’d think they were a bit odd. Mental health issues aren’t quite as common as the common cold, but it’s something the overwhelming majority of us will struggle with at some point in our lives, so it’s a real shame that we still feel embarrassed, or like it’s something we need to hide.
We all have mental health. We all need to make sure that we look after it. On this year’s mental health awareness day, I wanted to look at the ways we can build healthy habits for better mental health.
See your GP
When I first started writing this, I thought of adding in all those twee things you see on articles like this. What will help when you’re struggling with your mental health? Doing some deep breathing. Going for a walk. Having a bath and putting a face mask on (these things are usually aimed at women, although who doesn’t like a nice bath?!).
But I don’t think this is helpful. Of course, going for a walk is a very positive thing and getting some fresh air will always do you good. But it’s not helpful when you’re at rock bottom. It’s not helpful when you’re in a very bad place and finding it difficult to even get out of bed in the morning. I can’t speak for any other type of mental illness apart from depression, and I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I know that there was no amount of yoga that would help me when I was routinely hoping that tomorrow would be the day I wouldn’t wake up.
If you’re really struggling with your mental health, you need to see a doctor. I know, I know, doctors are stretched to the limit and you don’t think you warrant taking up any of their time when surely if you work hard enough and go on enough walks, you’ll be feeling fine in no time. But you’re not wasting anyone’s time. You are worthy and you deserve the help you need to get better.
Whether that help is medication or an alternative like talking therapy is up for you and your doctor to decide. A lot of people really don’t like the thought of medication to treat mental illness. If that’s you, then that’s fine, but I can tell you that my antidepressants have saved my life many times over. They’re not happy pills, but they give me a level foundation on which to build the healthy habits everyone needs to function at their best.
Whatever happens, the first step of going to get help is the hardest. Left untreated, these things have a nasty habit of spiralling out of control, so if you’re struggling, make an appointment now.
Building healthy habits for better mental health
So what are these healthy habits and how can you utilise them to improve your wellbeing?
Do some exercise
Yes, this is one of those things I mentioned earlier that you might read in articles such as this and immediately discount. However, there is a growing interest in the role exercise plays in the reduction of major mental health conditions and their symptoms, simply because it is so effective.
The European Psychiatric Association have recently recommended that exercise should form a core part of treatment plans for mental illness, with physical activity proving successful in improving symptoms in people with depression and schizophrenia-spectrum disorders.
And it doesn’t have to be a lot of exercise, either. Another study has found that even a 15-minute jog can have the same effects as 15 minutes of mindfulness-based relaxation techniques, which are often recommended for easing symptoms of anxiety.
It is really hard to get going, so you might find it easier to fit extra activity into your day instead of having a predetermined ‘exercise time’ – it’s another bunch of cliches, but things like getting off the bus one stop early, walking part of the way to work and taking the stairs when you can really do help. Here are 10 ways to get more exercise without really trying.
Alternatively, if you want something more structured, having something to work towards might help. The British Heart Foundation has some great training plans for walking and trekking, and the British Cycling website is a treasure trove of training plans if cycling is more your thing. There’s also the Couch to 5k plan, which will take you from having never run before to running 5k in 9 weeks, perfect if you’ve always wanted to become a runner.
Take it easy – you don’t have to go all out and risk injuring yourself. If you don’t fancy any of the above, remember that going out for a nice walk is always an option. Ahem.
It’s easier said than done, but honestly, eating well is absolutely essential. Cheat meals, treats and splurges are fine as long as they’re not the norm – have too many greasy takeaways and you’ll soon find that you’re not feeling your best.
And why is this? We’re not entirely sure, but The Mental Health Foundation (which has an excellent booklet on the impact of food on mental health which you can find here) suggests that as the brain is acutely sensitive to what we eat and drink, it needs a balanced diet to remain healthy. Some foods have a long-lasting influence on our mood and mental wellbeing because of the impact they have on the structure and function of the brain.
So do your best to eat as healthy as you can and give your brain a fighting chance. Drink water, eat your veggies and cut down on sugar. Note that I said to do your best – you don’t have to be perfect. This Buzzfeed list has some good ideas for easy ways you can start to eat healthier if you’re not in a place where you feel you can completely overhaul your diet.
Do as much as you can to look after yourself
Exercise and healthy eating aside, there is a lot you can do to practice a bit of self-care. We all need to get enough sleep, to feel fulfilled at work and at home, to socialise and do things that interest us. Little things like making time to see friends, taking up a new hobby, going to bed at a decent time instead of zoning out in front of the TV until 2 in the morning, all of this will have a positive impact on your health.
There’s no one size fits all solution to any of this, but if you can find some time to figure out what you need to focus on it will go a long way towards improving your wellbeing.
What’s this got to do with weight loss?
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with weight loss. Well, a recent study found that there is a link between high BMI and poor mental health, which probably won’t come as a surprise. It’s easy to see that if you’re unhappy with your body, then it follows that you’re probably pretty unhappy generally too.
Losing weight isn’t a cure and many people find that when they reach their goal weight, they’re not as happy as they thought they’d be. This is usually because their excess weight was just a symptom of a much bigger problem. But eating well is important, and food has a big effect on how we feel.
Going to bed early isn’t going to magic away those pounds you want to lose, and antidepressants won’t help you get to your goal weight. But it’s all linked and tied up together in a complicated, tangled web. It’s one piece of the jigsaw. Looking after your wellbeing is one way of giving yourself the best shot at getting healthy, both physically and mentally.
If you’re struggling and require support now
Tel: 116 123 (24 hour line)
CALM (Campaign against living miserably) – for men
0800 58 58 58 – 5pm-midnight every day
Tel: 0300 304 7000 (4.30-10.30pm every day)