If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ll know I’m a mental health nurse and I often discuss mental health with many individuals. Here’s a scenario that I encounter more frequently than I’d care to admit: I meet with someone who’s been through the wringer. They’re on antidepressants and have experimented with different types, have attempted self-help interventions, maybe attended a course or two or undergone some counselling, all in a bid to manage their anxiety and depression. Yet, here’s the kicker: when I take a more holistic approach to discussing their health and wellbeing, we often find gaping holes. They’re dealing with workplace stress, battling excess weight, rarely stepping out into the sunshine, have minimal physical activity (no gym, no sports), limited social interaction, disrupted sleep patterns, and a less-than-optimal diet. The most heart-rending part? This has been their reality for months, if not years. It’s probably been the reality for some of their family and friends too. It saddens me to think that such scenarios are all too common in our communities. Now, imagine if their journey had taken a different route, one with less focus on ‘anxiety and depression’ and more on ‘resilience and wellbeing’. Let’s explore this alternative path together.
Have you ever had an algorithm selected ad pop up on your Instagram feed, mentioning something about ADHD or a mental health quiz? I know I have. It feels like our world continues to grapple with a spiralling mental health crisis. More mental health terms are floating around, and mental health services across the country see their waitlists skyrocket. So, here’s food for thought: are we focusing too much on illnesses and self-diagnoses? Are we forgetting our inherent human capacities for resilience and wellbeing?
Of course, let’s be clear: some people do have mental health disorders that genuinely require assessment and specific treatment. For instance, this could include folks with severe anxiety disorders like generalised anxiety, social phobia, PTSD, OCD, and so on. It could also be severe depression, personality disorders, psychotic disorders, or mood disorders. Yet most of us aren’t part of this group and likely won’t ever be.
At some point, many of us will experience episodes of stress, anxiety, or depression. Yet, as grim as this reality can be, it doesn’t automatically warrant psychiatric evaluation or pharmaceutical intervention. The human experience isn’t about perpetual happiness or immunity to hardship. It’s about resilience – our ability to weather the storms, adapt to change, and continue to thrive. I don’t believe the answer lies in self-diagnosis and focusing on illness.
It might seem obvious, and a lot of it is common sense, but there’s an increasing body of evidence showing that holistic practices can profoundly impact our mental health. These practices emphasise aspects like physical exercise, nutrition, social engagement, and mindfulness. For most of us, who don’t have clinical mental health disorders, we may have strayed from our true human nature. We’ve succumbed to modern life’s stressors, seduced by technology’s allure, burdened by chronic stress, and facing challenges our ancestors would find alien. It’s therefore crucial that we find ways to weather modern life’s storm and boost wellbeing. So, what are these holistic practices I’m talking about?
Physical exercise, for one, is a powerful mood modulator. Regular physical activity has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood by improving self-esteem and cognitive function (Rebar et al., 2015). Similarly, nutrition isn’t just about fueling the body; it’s about feeding the mind too. A balanced diet has a protective effect on mental health, and unhealthy dietary patterns are risk factors for psychiatric and neurologic disorders.
Social engagement, the bonds we form with others, is vital in maintaining our mental health. We are social creatures by nature. Our interactions, relationships, and community involvement shape our mental wellbeing. The lack of social connections can be as damaging to our health as smoking, high blood pressure, or obesity (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010).
Next up, nutrition. The food we eat isn’t just fuel for our bodies – it’s nourishment for our minds. Studies have shown that a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains can protect our mental health. On the flip side, diets high in processed foods and sugars have been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness is another pillar. In a world of constant distractions and technological overload, mindfulness allows us to regain control over our minds and alleviate anxiety and depression (Khoury et al., 2015). Mindfulness doesn’t have to involve sitting quietly for ten minutes a day. To me, mindfulness is about taking time out to be present. There are many ways to achieve this – you just need to find a method that fits your lifestyle.
The power of these holistic approaches shouldn’t undermine the importance of evidence-based treatment for those with mental disorders. Clinical intervention remains crucial in managing severe mental health conditions. The point here isn’t to negate the value of medical treatment, but to broaden our understanding of mental health care.
Imagine a different mental health approach. Instead of primarily focusing on treating disorders, we spend more time nurturing wellbeing. We enable individuals to build resilience, care for their wellbeing, and live in ways that align with our true human nature. Picture this: instead of visiting a GP or mental health worker for an assessment or a prescription, you have a conversation about your diet, join a gym class, enrol in a social prescribing intervention, meet like-minded people, and agree on a plan. You’re encouraged to follow this plan and work on your wellbeing. Then, if things don’t improve, or you start to feel worse, you can revisit your practitioner and explore other options.
I’m not suggesting anything revolutionary, and, indeed, many fantastic teams and organisations offer a far more holistic approach. What I advocate for is an enhanced, holistic approach to mental health at every step on a person’s journey. This perspective respects and incorporates clinical treatments where necessary but also recognizes and empowers our inherent capacity for resilience and wellbeing. This shift could guide us towards a healthier society, both mentally and physically, where individuals are equipped with the tools and knowledge to look after their mental health in ways that resonate with our human nature.
So as we navigate through this period of uncertainty and change, it’s more crucial than ever to reconsider our approach towards mental health. Let’s envision a society that treats mental disorders effectively, champions mental health through lifestyle adjustments that are true to our human nature, and fosters a culture of resilience and wellbeing. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316
Khoury, B., Sharma, M., Rush, S. E., & Fournier, C. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 78(6), 519-528
Rebar, A. L., Stanton, R., Geard, D., Short, C., Duncan, M. J., & Vandelanotte, C. (2015). A meta-meta-analysis of the effect of physical activity on depression and anxiety in non-clinical adult populations. Health Psychology Review, 9(3), 366-378
About the author
I have been working as a mental health nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. I love my job, I love learning and talking to people about mental health and wellbeing. This article represents my personal opinion and is certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health please speak with a GP or health professional.
The CALL helpline – 0800 132 737 or text HELP to 81066. Sometimes reaching out for support whether it is a friend, family member or GP is the hardest thing to do, but a good way to do this is by talking to someone through a confidential and impartial service. CALL Offers emotional support, a confidential listening service and information/literature on Mental Health and related matters to the people of Wales and their relatives/friends.