I have been working in mental health for 15 years. As part of my role as the Director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, I have the pleasure of meeting and talking with people across the country – media organisations, workplaces, schools, health professionals and community groups. I get the privilege of hearing people’s stories and finding out abouthow their views about mental health and mental illness have changed over those years.
There would be no person living in Australia who has not been touched by mental illness or suicide; either because they have personal experience or because they have a family member, friend or colleague who has been affected.
More than ever before, communities are interested in and engaged with the issues. But sometimes our messages can get confused or be so narrow, that people don’t know what role they can play. We often try to scare people into action – hitting them with statistics and stories of when things have gone wrong rather than thinking about how we can encourage and involve people in our communities.
What I often hear from people is that mental health is a “specialist” area, requiring specialist input and action. And true, the treatment system does require specialists and those with training, but there is a lot we can all do for ourselves and those around us.
When I was 17 years old, I got my fist car; a Datsun 120Y that my stepfather pieced together for me. I was so excited about that car and the independence it offered, but I was certainly no expert in cars and how to look after one. I had no idea about the mechanics and internal workings of a car nor could I build or fix one if you paid me a lot of money – yet it managed to run for many years. Very early on, my parents taught me there were some important things that a car needed so it could run.
Without them I wouldn’t get very far. I learnt a car needed petrol on a regular basis, or it would quite literally “run out of gas”. It also needed some other things that helped keep it on the road – oil, water, and well-treaded tires. As it turned out my Datsun also needed a little choke at the traffic lights on a cold morning.
I also needed some things – I required some skills, training and support from other people to be able to navigate my way from point A to point B safely. And just like that car and the silver Camry I now drive, as human beings we also need things that keep us going and keep us well. So, you can think about the importance of keeping ourselves mentally healthy as being like keeping your car running and roadworthy.
Being mentally healthy and living well is important to every single one of us. It’s about enjoying life and fulfilling our potential. It’s having the ability to cope with stresses and sadness and it’s about being connected to friends, family, community and culture.
It can be so easy for us to take our mental health for granted; to prioritise other things; to put it off until next week. But just like we can’t put off adding petrol to our car for another week, we shouldn’t put off our mental health till another time either. There are some things everyone can do to get started.
#1 Get enough sleep and rest. Sleep affects our physical and mental health, but can be the first thing we trade in when we get busy or stressed.
#2 Take time out for things you enjoy. Balance in life is important, so taking time out for things you like to do can make a difference to how you think and feel.
#3 Be active and eat well. Our physical and mental health is closely linked, so adding exercise and nutritious food every day can make us feel better.
#4 Nurture relationships and connect with others. Our connection to people around us is what builds us up and keeps us strong.
#5 Learn to manage stress. If you have trouble winding down or managing your thoughts, you may find relaxation, yoga or writing your feelings down helpful.
#6 Get involved and join in. Being part of a group with common interests provides a sense of belonging so find out about sporting, music, volunteer or community groups locally.
#7 Build your confidence. Learning improves your mental fitness and taking on a new challenge can build confidence and give you a sense of achievement.
#8 Be comfortable in your own skin. Everyone is unique and should be celebrated. Know who you are and what makes you happy.
#9 Set realistic goals and deal with tasks one at a time. It is good to be specific when you set a goal to help keep you on track.
#10 Reach out for help when you need it. Everyone needs support from time to time. Talking to a family member, a friend, your doctor or one of the many services available can make all the difference.
The getting help early bit is really important. Again, to use the analogy – imagine you are driving along in a car and felt that something wasn’t quite right with the steering wheel or the brakes were squeaking or the engine was making a clunking noise. Would you just ignore it and hope it goes away?
What most people would do is ask a friend or family member for advice and then take it to a mechanic to check it out. Sometimes it could be nothing, but other times there may have been something more seriously wrong. It is the same with our mental health.
The earliest point that something is ‘not quite right’ is the time to tell someone or seek out a service. And what if you were a friend or family member sitting in the car and you heard a clunk or a squeak from the car?
Would you ignore it or would you say something? I’d suggest that most people would raise it with their family member or friend, with no expectation that they would know how to pop the bonnet and fix the problem. But when it comes to noticing changes in the behaviour of people closest to us, people often leave words unsaid for fear of making the problem worse, or fear of not knowing what to do next.
You don’t need to know how to fix the problem, but listening without judgement and helping a friend find information about what the next steps might be could make all the difference.
You do not need to be an expert or a specialist to play a key role in your own mental health and the mental health of those around you.
There are things we can all do for ourselves and for others to get them safely across bumpy roads or to enjoy the open spaces. And remember to stop in and get a check-up along the road.
Further information about mental health and wellbeing is available at: