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Mental Health: Why It Matters and How to Stay Mentally Well

Mental Health

Mental Health in Australia

With depression now the leading cause of disability globally (according to the WHO), affecting over 350 million people worldwide, and with anxiety as its frequent partner, affecting 260 million people worldwide, something has to change.

Happy at Work

The current mental health statistics in Australia suggest how rapidly we need change:

  • According to Beyond Blue, around 1 million Australians have depression and 2 million have anxiety in any given year – this is a big worry.
  • The risk for Australian adults developing a mental illness in any given 12 months has been stated as being 1 in 5 for at least the last decade.
  • 1 in 6 Australians are at risk of anxiety at some point in their lives.
  • 85% of those with clinical depression have significant anxiety and 90% of those with anxiety are also depressed.
  • Every day an average of 8 Australians will take their own lives, 6 will be men.
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 25 to 44.

The statistics are scary, and especially for the younger generation.

  • The 2017 Youth Mental Health Report by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute confirmed mental illness to be a growing challenge with 1 in 4 young people aged 15-19 are at risk of serious mental illness.
  • 1 in 6 Australians aged 16 to 24 years have experienced an anxiety disorder over the last 12 months.
  • A report by the Pew Research Centre published in The Economist found 70% of respondents in Generation Z (i.e. born after 1997) reported anxiety and depression was a major issue for them along with bullying and exam pressures.
  • A survey from Headspace reported close to 70% of those surveyed as saying their mental health was poor or fair with 2/3 reporting high or very high psychological distress over the previous 12 months.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate – it can affect anyone.

Mental Health

So, what’s the problem?

Well, there is no single answer.

Sometimes, of course, mental illness occurs because of the hand we are dealt with by our genes or our environment. Not to mention, anxiety, high stress and depression frequently cohabit together. It can be hard sometimes to fathom out where one ends and the other starts.

Happy Office

However, it is thought the way we currently choose to live and work, is contributing to rising stress levels in our fast-paced, complex and rapidly changing world. We do too much. We drive ourselves too hard and we overburden our brain with stress. Too much stress over a long time reduces our ability to cope with our daily challenges.

Little by little those minor irritations and low mood escalate into a quagmire of negative thoughts and everything takes on more of a negative hue. We forget the sky is blue because we get stuck under all those grey clouds.

Knowing when to pull back, to stop and take a mental break can be hard, especially when there are deadlines to meet, expectations to rise to and a desire to succeed because we love what we do and want to do well.

Anyone can potentially be affected. So, this has to become a corporate responsibility in the workplace, to create a safe environment for all brains from the CEO down, to have access to and know how to implement effective stress reduction tools.

But what if we all pressed the pause button, even for a moment, to take stock of where we are, where we’re going and how we feel?

Mental Health

Mental Health at Work

These rising levels of anxiety and depression have an estimated economic cost of US$1 trillion p.a. to the global economy. In the workplace, depression alone costs the Australian economy over $12.3 billion each year, with absenteeism and presenteeism sitting at about $79 billion p.a. according to AIG

That’s a heck of a price to be paying for poor mental health and unhappiness.

A recent study that examined the mental health of corporate Australia revealed the prevalence to be far greater with one in three experiencing some form of mental illness broken down to

21% or one in five adult Australians have taken time off work in the last 12 months due to feeling stressed, depressed or mentally unhealthy, with the risk being twice as high in those workplaces deemed mentally unhealthy.

At work, poor mental health is limiting productivity, efficiency and potential, and is stifling creativity. Did you know that intense emotion is contagious? Meaning anxiety can spread through a team or office faster than you can say, “bless you” after a sneeze. 

This is why mental wellbeing is one essential component of organisational health.

According to a study from the University of Toronto, the effect of workplace anxiety on performance is closely connected to the quality of relationships between bosses, co-workers and employees. This should come as no surprise. If you are working in a stressful environment but have an empathetic manager or supervisor, it is far easier to deal with a level of emotional exhaustion. A workplace culture that builds strong social networks is one that will help allay fears and worry. 

A high-performance workplace achieves success; growth and prosperity, by ensuring all members of the business or organisation enjoy the combination of physical, mental and cognitive health.

What if every workplace had in place a protocol to ensure that every employee had the necessary strategies to keep stress and anxiety at manageable levels? What impact could that have on their level of productivity and performance?

How to Help Others Stay

Mentally Well

Develop Compassion and Empathy

We can restore our mental health by re-humanising the workplace and our relationships with others.

Compassion and empathy allow us to understand what might be going on for someone else. It makes us kinder, more tolerant and resistant to the black tentacles of envy, distrust and fear. Practising compassion might sound a little weird but has been shown to boost happiness and wellbeing in ourselves and in those with whom we share our lives.

 

Look for Clues in Others

Realise if someone might not be themselves and are putting on a brave front by noticing that change in their behaviour and performance: are they are more disengaged from colleagues? Do they appear tired all the time? Do they never smile or look sad?

We are all busy and often get caught up in our agendas – but all it takes is a few seconds to notice other people around us. How are they today?

 

Listen

Being listened to with genuine attention and compassion goes a long way in the journey to restore mental health and wellbeing.

 

RUOK? – Start a Conversation

Start a conversation with open-ended questions and ask how they are. It’s important to give the space needed to avoid being fobbed off with the “I’m fine” routine and a fake Mona Lisa smile.

How to Stay

Mentally Well

Breaks

Eat Well

What you eat has a big impact on your mood.

Compassion

Get Help

The most crucial thing to do is to get help from a qualified health professional.

Gratitude

Laugh

Humour is a fantastic way to boost your mood.

Kindness

Manage Your Stress

Effective stress management is paramount.

Positive Relationships

Practise Gratitude

Keeping a gratitude journal will help you feel happier.

Reward & Recognition

Self-compassion

Learning to accept ourselves is the way towards self-compassion.

Reward & Recognition

Stay Social

Sharing time with a friend or loved one is priceless.

Choice

Exercise

Exercise clears the mind and releases feel-good hormones.

Exercise

Keep Things in Perspective

Press pause and ask, “what is really happening here?”

Green Space

Manage Your Mindset

A positive mindset keeps you solution-focused and keeps things in perspective.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness

Getting more mindful and being “present” calms the brain.

Psychological Safety

Self-care

Self-care includes the fundamentals to better wellbeing.

Sense of Purpose & Meaning

Sleep

Lack of sleep contributes to a worsening mood.

Sleep

Take Some Time Out

Scheduling in breaks can make all the difference to your mental health.

How to Stay Mentally Well

Eat Well

What you eat has a big impact on your mood, memory and cognition.

Around 95% of serotonin (your happiness hormone) is produced in the gut by the biome: the trillions of bacteria that inhabit our gut and are in direct communication with the brain.

Eating foods that are high in fibre such as oats, peas and legumes, beans, and peas feed the good bacteria in the gut, slow down the absorption of sugar and boost serotonin levels.

How to Stay Mentally Well

Exercise

Being active enough across our day can make a big difference in our moodExercise not only helps to clear the mind of all those worries, but it also elevates the release of our feel-good hormones: dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.

Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise to get you sweaty and puffed is a great way to elevate mood and keep you in a more positive frame of mind. Exercise can help to burn off those stress hormones that can lead us down the slippery path to anxiety and depression.

It can be hard to find that motivation to exercise when feeling low. The good news is that even a small amount of activity will lead to a positive effect. Even a short burst of physical activity for 10 minutes has been shown to reduce stress levels, boost the immune system and lower inflammation, improve your mood and yes, it aids sleep too.

Find an activity you’re willing to do, that you will hopefully find enjoyable – walking is ideal as a start, schedule it to happen, find an accountability buddy if necessary.

How to Stay Mentally Well

Get Help

Of course, the most crucial thing to do is to get help from a qualified health professional.

Speak to your GP to discuss which strategy would be most helpful to your situation. Seeing a psychologist to learn some relaxation techniques and strategies to build resilience can be life changing. A life without anxiety or depression is so much more enjoyable than enduring a life with it.

How to Stay Mentally Well

Keep Things in Perspective

As stress levels rise the size of our challenges can appear to grow exponentially. What was a minor worry at breakfast has morphed into a gigantic monster by teatime – if we let it.
It’s time to press pause and ask – what is really happening here?

Finding clarity helps you to identify what needs to happen next. It improves how you interpret and understand what is being asked of you.

This is where having a workplace buddy, a trusted friend or confidante can help you to challenge those negative and self-limited beliefs, reconnect you with your strengths and keep things in perspective.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Laugh

    Humour is a fantastic way to boost your mood and lessen the load of other things that may be happening in your life. You may not feel like a rib-cracking chortle, but sharing a joke, finding the humour in a funny video clip is the first step to reducing some of the heavy burdens of anxiety. Laughing out loud reduces cortisol levels and builds emotional resilience to pain, both physical and mental.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Manage Your Mindset

    Listen to that little voice. Yes, that one chattering away in your head. Check in to what it is telling you. If negative, know that you can choose to reframe your viewpoint. Attitudes can change. A positive mindset keeps you solution-focused and keeps things in perspective.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Manage Your Stress

    Easy to say, but effective stress management is paramount and can be readily achieved by putting into practice those techniques that help build resilience to stressful situations, such as acknowledging your stressors and the associated emotions they induce. By simply naming how stress makes you feel, you give your brain a helping hand to keep it in perspective and reduce the negative impact you might otherwise experience.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Mindfulness

    We spend a lot of time either future planning and thinking about all the “what ifs” or ruminating about what happened in the past. This leaves little time to be in the present moment. Getting more mindful and being “present” calms the brain and by keeping the pre-frontal cortex engaged, provides you with the means to stay solution- rather than problem-focused.

    Mindfulness has also been shown to influence our telomeres, the shoelace caps on the end of our chromosomes. The longer our telomeres last, the longer we live, plus mindfulness has been shown to influence gene expression determining our physical and mental wellbeing.

    Whether you undertake a formal mindful meditation practice, choose to breathe, or practice paying attention to the here and now, mindfulness is about reducing our noisy mind chatter that’s constantly directing us to our future plans or past concerns.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Practise Gratitude

    Keeping a gratitude journal or diarising 3-5 good things daily that you are grateful for will make you feel happier and more relaxed.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Self-care

    Getting enough sleep, eating good food and being physically active are the fundamentals to better health and wellbeing. Eating crap or not eating because you can’t be bothered, staying up all night watching Netflix or gaming is detrimental as is not getting out into some fresh air and sunshine. The current recommendation being to spend 2 hours in nature every week as a minimum for our mental wellbeing.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Self-compassion

    Feeling mentally distressed or anxious is often linked to feelings of guilt, self-criticism and the fear of not being ‘enough’. Self-compassion starts by listening to the language you’re using in self-talk. If you’re being overly self-critical, think of how you might respond to a friend experiencing the same thoughts to reframe your thinking.

    This is hard when all you see are your flaws and imperfections. But learning to accept and even get to like all those jiggly bits is the way towards self-compassion and feeling that no matter what, we are always “enough.”

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Sleep

    Those already diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other mood disorder will frequently report sleep disturbance that makes it hard for them to have the energy, motivation or inclination to function normally. Lack of sleep contributes to a worsening mood and loss of emotional regulation while having sufficient sleep is vital for emotional regulation, learning and memory. So, look to get 7-9 hours every night of good quality, uninterrupted sleep.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Stay Social

    Sharing a laugh or a moment with a friend or loved one is priceless in terms of the value it provides our mental wellbeing. Out of everything, feeling loved, cared for and supported through difficult times is the most powerful enabler. Spending time with others and forming relationships has been shown to be as important to our survival and thrival as having access to food, water and shelter.

    When times are tough, it’s those we care about, who love us that can make the biggest difference. Nurturing positive relationships is THE most effective way to build greater resilience to stress and anxiety.

    Being with and talking with others helps us to retain that sense of normality, of appreciating the good things in our lives and the beauty around us that we otherwise find hard to keep sight of. Knowing that you are not alone and that many others have experience of what you are going through to makes it easier to believe you can get through this and find your way forward.

    How to Stay Mentally Well

    Take Some Time Out

    Taking holidays when they are due and scheduling in mini-breaks such as a long weekend to break the cycle of busy can make all the difference to your mental health.

    Even taking some time out in a green space for 10-15 minutes every day – even if it’s out of the window has been shown to reduce stress and elevate mood. Whether you work indoors or spend a lot of time outside, greenery has been shown to be essential for mental wellbeing, which is why attending to our working and living environment can make a positive difference to our thoughts, mood and behaviour. 

    If you need a longer break, one study showed how six days away will boost mood and elevate well-being for up to a month afterwards.

    So, what are you waiting for? With only 31% of Australians taking all their holiday leave each year, that’s a lot of missed opportunity to do something positive for yourself.

    It all boils down to lightening up, keeping things in perspective and taking time out to ensure you are enjoying the life you have. We all get such a short time on this planet, let’s make it a great event and enjoy good mental health.

    Does your organisation look after the mental capital of all its employees?

    What method do you find useful to keep mentally healthy?

    If you or someone you know is at risk of mental illness or burnout, help is at hand.
    Contact your health practitioner.

    Lifeline 13 11 14 For Crisis support and suicide prevention www.lifeline.org.au

    Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au

    RUOK? www.ruok.org.au

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