To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Module Leader Child & Adolescent Mental Health Hereward Proops shares his story.
Hereward Proops is a LCC UHI lecturer who teaches on a variety of courses including our CPD Award in Child & Adolescent Mental Health
We all know about the benefits of healthy living. From an early age, we are taught about the importance of exercise, a balanced diet and good hygiene. We know that if we look after our bodies, we reduce the risk of illness and we feel better in ourselves. People are not threatened by the word “health” and most people are willing to talk about it. However, place the word “mental” in front of it, and people may be much less willing to open up and share their experiences.
Perhaps the word “mental” has negative connotations. As a child, I recall myself and my contemporaries using it as an adjective to describe something that was unreasoning, unreasonable, out-of-control or just plain crazy. Nobody wants to be seen as “mental” and this stigma is perhaps what is making it so difficult to engage in sensible, open discussion about “mental health”.
The reality is, mental health affects every single one of us. The word “mental” simply refers to aspects or functions of the mind. Very few people would claim that they don’t have a mind, so why should we feel unable to discuss it?
One in four people will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives. That’s 25% of the population. One in twelve children and young people in Scotland are affected by mental health difficulties that have a negative impact on their relationships, education and general well-being on a day-to-day basis. Depression and anxiety are now the number one cause of long-term absence from work and mental health issues are estimated to cost Britain £70 billion each year. With so many of us affected and with such a cost to the economy, you would have thought that we would at least be able to talk openly about it.
In recent years, successive governments have become aware of the growing need to address the country’s mental health difficulties. Money is often pledged to tackle the problems of underfunding and targets are frequently set to reduce waiting times for patients to access counselling services. This is all beneficial (when the politicians deliver on their promises) but unless people become more willing to discuss their individual experiences of mental health issues, the stigma will remain.
We are quite happy to share our efforts to be physically healthy. Nobody thinks twice when talking about their exercise regime at the gym or the latest diet they are trying out. Indeed, some people talk about little else! I often find myself wondering how empowering it would be for people to be similarly open about their efforts to sustain good mental health. To share hints and tips for relaxation strategies or mindfulness practices as we do with healthy recipes. To talk about the hard work we have been putting in with our counsellor or therapist the same way we brag about our exertions with a personal trainer at the gym. To listen without judgement to family members, friends and colleagues when they have the courage to share their stories of anxiety or depression. When we are able to hear the words “mental health” without panicking or assuming that the person we are talking to is “mental”, then we will have taken a big step forward.
There is increasing evidence that spending time in nature can have a positive impact on our mental health. As well as being more active outside and the health benefits that come with this, spending time in nature can improve our mood, lower stress levels, improve confidence and self-esteem, and give us a valuable ‘time-out’ from the busy world we live in. Research into ecotherapy (a formal therapeutic treatment involving time spent in nature and close mindful examination of the impact this has on our thoughts and feelings) has shown it can reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression. For others, simply pottering around in the garden or going for a walk can be a less structured, but equally beneficial experience.
Living on the Isle of Lewis, I am spoiled for choice when it comes to getting out into nature. We have miles of unspoiled moors, our own little mountain range, beautiful beaches… and yet, how many of us regularly put time aside to go out and enjoy these things? Certainly during the last year, with two lockdowns, three kids at home, and juggling both my teaching and therapeutic work, I confess that I have not always made the best of the natural world that is, quite literally on my doorstep.
However, a practice I have found myself doing when I head out to the beach near my house is rock-balancing. There is something that I find exceedingly calming and grounding in doing this. You choose a number of stones, and balance them one on top of the other. But you cannot just throw them together or move too fast. This exercise requires a calm mind, a steady hand, and patience. When putting together a rock-stack, I have to slow down. I cannot think of anything else, as the moment I get distracted by thoughts of marking papers or what I will be feeding the kids for dinner, I lose focus and the rocks tumble. Each rock has its own weight and unique shape and as I slowly move them against one another, I discover the best way in which they can sit together. Once positioned, I move my hands away slowly, holding my breath to see if they remain in place. And then, I add another rock and the process begins again. I generally aim to stack five or six rocks to a pile… any more, and it has a tendency to become a more stressful endeavour than it should be! When finished, I feel a strange sense of accomplishment and, better yet, I am more relaxed, as though I have left all my stresses and worries in that rock pile too. So, for anyone who wonders who keeps stacking rocks on Bayble beach, there’s your answer. Try it for yourself and see how you feel afterwards.
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