Top mental health tips for World Mental Health Day

In honour of World Mental Health Day 2014, organised by the Mental Health Foundation, I have compiled a list of my top tips for mental health for anyone who’s interested.

It’s a lot easier to maintain mental health than it is to recover it. The body and mind cannot be pushed to it’s limits without compensation coming from somewhere, but the the perfectionists among us may take a lifetime to learn this. Unfortunately, most people only become aware of their mental health once it has been lost. I have assimilated a layman’s body of knowledge about mental health over the last few years, and I thought it was time to distil it into a set of ‘top tips’ – a short handbook for maintaining mental health. I have written it to coincide with World Mental Health day.

There are a lot of internet writers who have helped me on my mental health journey – including zen buddhists Leo Babauta (a professional writer) and Alex Lickerman (a physician), and ‘happiness’ author Gretchen Rubin, to name but a few. The internet is an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration in this area, and in many others.

Society in general focuses very little on mental health, despite its significance, expecting our brains to keep ticking over rather than destroying us from within. Unfortunately, this hardly ever happens. The mind, like the body, needs to be maintained. We assume the mind will innately function, ticking along with no conscious intervention, but people are naturally prone to all sorts of unhealthy habits.

In fact, the mind must be treated much like the body: it should be used, developed, and have its needs tended to. As humans, we are drawn to indulge in destructive behaviour, such as self-gratification, insecurity and egotism (especially, but not exclusively, in youth). This tendency is a barrier to good mental health and, therefore, happiness.

Some, if not most, of these tips will hopefully resonate with lots of people. In the hierarchy of needs, first defined by Abraham Maslow, the need for mental health is above basic needs like food, water and shelter. We are very fortunate to have the freedom to think about these higher needs – so, please, read on.

To maintain good mental health, you should pay attention to your:

– Need for understanding. If something is bothering you, try to identify what it is. If you feel like it’s nothing in particular, it will either be a few things, or your conscious mind is not yet willing to admit to it. Write how you feel in a journal, talk to a close friend (who is a good listener!) or go for a walk. You’ll figure it out.

– Need for connection. You can find connection with a strong group of friends or family. If people are not readily available right now, or you don’t feel like hanging out with anyone, art can help. Regularly absorb great art, whether it’s poetry, painting, film, music or literature. Also make sure you watch the news or the latest popular TV programme to stay connected with wider society.

– Need for fun. It sounds silly, but the more industrious among us sometimes forget to have fun, so make sure you squeeze it in for at least an hour a day. Have a walk in the park, see a friend, cook a delicious meal, or read an absorbing book.

– Need for inner peace. Meditate regularly. This will build up a sense of mindfulness that will prevent you from becoming too involved in your anxious or worried thoughts in a destructive way, and help you make the most of every day. It will help you clarify your feelings, even intense ones, and allow you to go with life’s flow.

– Need for purpose. This could take many forms, but, broadly speaking, a sense of purpose is something that gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning, show up, and care. Purpose can be provided by a pet, which is something dependent on you that you need to take care of. It could also be a plant, volunteering role, or taking part in an event.

– Need to help others. I’m not really sure why, but our own troubles are put into perspective when we expend energy helping someone else. Perhaps it enables you to feel a deeper connection with humanity or the universe, which, when missing, makes you feel hollow and alone. Offer to visit an elderly relative, cook for someone, or read their CV.

– Need for creativity. Everyone is creative. I have no patience with that awful phrase, ‘creative types’. As human beings, we are all capable and, what’s more, we need to create new things to feel novelty, inspiration and joy. You could try cooking a new dish, taking up drawing, sewing blankets or writing a short story. It’s more about the process than creating an impressive end product.

– Need for meaning. There’s a reason why religion is so popular. It seems fairly obvious to me that there is no god; or, if there is, he or she doesn’t really care about us, but you can still derive meaning from so many other non-religious sources. Immerse yourself in spiritual teachings, learn as much as you can about science, or spend time in nature.

– Need for physical well-being. Mental and physical health are inextricably linked; this cannot be overstated. Eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can, have regular meals, drink water, exercise, and get enough sleep. You’ll look better and feel better. Your mind can’t function well if you don’t take care of your body. Take up a sport  you enjoy, like swimming, aim to eat a different coloured vegetable every day, and create a sleep routine.

It may seem overwhelming to read all of these things, despite this not being a comprehensive list, but there is no pressure to do all of them at once.

In Buddhism, one of the central teachings is that life is a constant state of change, and so must we be if we are to live well. So, a good rule of thumb is, no matter what you’re doing, make sure you retain a sense of riding the wave, and building momentum. Like Walt in Breaking Bad, the news of his cancer is his reason to strike out and live for the moment. You don’t have to be as extreme as Walt, and you shouldn’t do anything illegal, but adversity is the biggest catalyst for change. Use it.

Women who eat (angrily) on tubes

I think I have some insight into why there was so much backlash from the so-called ‘feminist community’ and women at large against the guy who started a Facebook group by posting photos of women eating on tubes. Several women complained about their photos being used, but he refused to take them down for a long time. There was lots of media interest in the issue, but no one could really pinpoint why this was apparently so sexist.

To focus solely on women and their relationship to food touches on a nerve, which men probably don’t notice, because there isn’t the same stigma attached to eating for men.

Most women will be able to identify with the awkwardness of eating at work – snaffling your lunch in front of other people, and having others pass judgement on what you’re eating. ‘Oh, you’re so healthy.’ ‘What – crisps? At 10am?’ ‘Why aren’t you eating any cake?’

I don’t think men tend to take any particular interest in the eating habits of their peers, but the opposite is certainly the case for women. I think this partly stems from the immense pressure on women to tightly control their eating habits, in an effort to reach that svelte size 8 – which is in reality out of reach for most women, or would be unhealthy to attain.

For women, life is a constant battle to look thin, while resisting the tidal wave of marketing and advertising from the food industry. From the cradle to the grave, we are assaulted with images of stick-thin women, from Disney princesses, to models and actresses. Ironically, the UK food industry is currently worth £175.4 billion and still rising; some people are obviously getting rich by making us fat.

It’s a special paradox that women are charged with the impossible duty of being painfully thin, and yet constantly deluged by adverts that urge them to consume.

Typical ‘subconscious’ messaging behind an ice cream advert: Eat this chocolate ice cream – it’ll make you look and feel sexy and meet the man of your dreams.

On the other hand, from women’s magazines: Don’t eat ice cream – Kate Moss doesn’t, and as a result she is sexy and happy.

How many women can look at a picture of a Big Mac without their mouth watering? And how many count the calories in that burger?

I think this originally ‘banterous’ Facebook group, which is still online (with all but one of the photos removed) inadvertently taps into women’s private torment, and subsequently unleashed the fury of millions of beleaguered women. This man and his acolytes were not just bantering about women eating on tubes – they were, in a way, pointing cruelly at the hell that exists between women and their food. It is hard to enjoy eating without guilt, and the woman who genuinely does is rare.

We must eat – but not too much, and not on tubes, it seems.