Mental health is a vital aspect of our well-being, but it is often neglected, stigmatised or misunderstood. Mental health problems can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, background or circumstance. They can have a significant impact on our personal and professional lives, as well as our physical health and social relationships. That’s why it is important to raise awareness of mental health and how we can support ourselves and others.
Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual event that aims to do just that. It runs from 15 to 21 May 2023 and this year’s theme is anxiety. Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience from time to time, but sometimes it can become overwhelming and interfere with our daily functioning. Anxiety can be triggered by various factors, such as stress, trauma, life events, health issues or financial difficulties.
Mental health is an extremely important component that can dictate our overall health and wellbeing. In this article, we aim to explain what is meant by mental health, what can increase the likelihood of mental health illnesses and why declining mental health is not always easily recognisable.
What is mental health and it’s importance?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO)[i], “Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” It is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.
What can increase the risk of mental health illness?
Mental health issues can be caused by a combination of many factors or sometimes just one major factor. According to Mind[ii] there is an increased risk of mental health conditions when there is exposure to abuse, trauma, neglect, loneliness, discrimination, poverty, debt, bereavement, prolonged/severe stress, chronic health problems, unemployment, head injuries, lack of sleep, drug and alcohol misuse.
Some studies have suggested that certain mental health issues could be inherited but there is some uncertainty around whether they are purely due to our genetics or whether this is more learnt behaviours by living with our parent(s).
Some studies have also suggested that mental health issues may arise due to chemical imbalances in the brain and hence why certain anti-depressants such as SSRIs (serotonin selective reabsorption inhibitors) work by correcting this imbalance by affecting the levels of serotonin and dopamine, the “happy hormones”, in our brain.
What physical symptoms are associated with mental health illness?
It is often thought that mental health illness symptoms are only related to our emotions or the way with think such as – changes in mood, low motivation, reduced concentration, increased anger, increased irritability, suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self-harm[iii]. However, mental health illness can also cause physical symptoms which one may not necessarily attribute to mental health initially which include – disturbed sleep, heightened sensitivity to sounds/smells/touch, changes in libido, fatigue, change in appetite, general aches/pains, changes to menstrual cycle and changes in bowel habit.
With chronic physical health problems, a declining mental health can make symptoms worse and therefore the health problem can become more difficult to manage such as in irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia. Interestingly the mortality rate is higher in people who have been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease and also have a mental health illness[iv].
Why can declining mental sometimes be difficult to identify?
Identifying a decline in our own mental health can be difficult as we may be inadvertently attributing our physical symptoms for other reasons for example – having problems sleeping/feeling generally tired and you feel you need to have a blood test to find a physical cause/explanation for symptoms – however all investigations come back as normal.
It is even more difficult to identify a decline in someone else, as they may be able to mask their emotional symptoms quite well. I often use the example that if you see a person and they are in a plaster cast, you are able to immediately sympathise with that person as they have clearly sustained a bad injury. However, unless they have severe symptoms, it is not always obvious if the person sitting next to you is having issues with their mental health. Hence, it is important to allow the opportunity for colleagues, friends and family to speak about their feelings; or asking them if they are generally okay especially if you have noticed a difference in the way they have been behaving or communicating.
What affect can it have on our work/personal life?
Poor mental health or declining mental health can have a major impact on our work/personal life and can affect our relationships with colleagues, family members as well as friends. Something this can lead to outbursts, arguments or over-reactions on relatively small issues – which may fuel the decline in mental health further. It can impact on our motivation to engage in those hobbies and interests which help our mental health, leading to fewer coping mechanisms being implemented and therefore fueling the decline further.
How can we improve our awareness of our own mental health and mental health of others?
We can improve our awareness of by removing the stigma around mental health by having more open and honest conversations regarding mental health. Holding workshops to promote mental health awareness is a good way on get the whole team involved in improving their understanding regarding mental health. Creating a “safe space” at home or work to encourage people to speak about their mental health. Increasing awareness of the mental health first aiders available at work and contact details for employee assistance programmes.
I feel my mental health is declining – what do I do?
If you feel that your mental health is declining, the most important thing to do is to tell someone about it. This can include your GP, mental health first aider, the employee assistance programme (if available), trusted colleagues, family members, close friends, counsellor or therapist; who may be able to direct you to services to get the support you need.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, thoughts of self-harm or harming others you must seek immediate medical attention which can include contacting your GP urgently, 111, 999, attending A&E, crisis team or emergency helplines (such as the Samaritans).
Why is it important to seek support with mental health at an earlier stage?
Nearly 75% of all lifetime mental disorders begin during adolescence and early adulthood[vi]. There is emerging evidence that an extended duration of untreated illness is associated with poor outcomes for mood and anxiety disorders[vii]. If left untreated, adolescent mental disorders often recur and become chronic[viii], potentially leading to impaired social, educational, and career development and poor trajectories into adulthood[ix]. Early intervention models of care have reduced this early all-cause mortality for psychotic disorders[x].
What can I do to help reduce the risk of having a decline in my mental health?
You can improve your own mental health by taking regular exercise, eating a health balanced diet, getting enough sleep, seeking/asking for help when needed, relaxation techniques, trying to focus on positive emotions and avoiding unhealthy lifestyle choices (alcohol and drugs).
Looking for more from ToHealth?
Looking to find out more about how we can support your workforce to be more neuroinclusive? Or interested in our huge variety of webinars and workshops on offer? ToHealth can support you with all of this and more.
[iii] DSM V
[vi] Kessler RC, Berglund P, Demler O, et al.Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity survey replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(6):593–602
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