How YOU can improve New Zealand’s mental health

New Zealand’s record on mental illness is often in the news along with our heartbreaking suicide rate and the pressure on our frontline services.

There is no doubt that as a country we need to do more to support those around us who are struggling. But how to do that can sometimes feel really overwhelming.

The good news is there is one simple thing we can all do to help improve the country’s mental health – understand it.

Mental health is not mental illness. That is so commonly misunderstood ... we so often hear about people who are unwell because they have ‘mental health’. 

The reality is we all have mental health. You, me, your neighbour, the Prime Minister ... even the Queen of England and King of Tonga have mental health.

Mental health refers to our psychological and emotional wellbeing or how well we are mentally - just as the term physical health refers to our physical wellbeing or how well our body is.

Mental health is not just about hospitals and being unwell. It is something we all have and nothing to be ashamed of (neither is mental illness for that matter).

If we all understood that, mental health would be infinitely easier to talk about.

From there we could talk about how, just like there are ways we can improve our physical health (exercising, sleeping well etc), there are things we can do to improve our mental health too.\

In other words, just as our bodies need nourishment to be healthy, our minds need nourishment to be well. 

So how does one nourish the mind? 

The British government’s helpfully packaged up ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing.’ These are five actions anyone can take that (if done often) are scientifically proven to boost mental health. Genuine mood boosters that cost nothing and anyone can do.

Connecting – with other people, friends and whānau. Taking Notice – of the good things in your life (this is why you hear so many people harping on about gratitude and mindfulness). Being Active – even a little exercise releases endorphins, our happy hormone. Keep Learning – learning makes us realise we’re capable and boosts self confidence. Give – being kind to others lifts our own mood, there’s even a tonne of science about the benefits of simply smiling at someone else!

There is, of course, some small print. Factors like poverty, poor housing and unemployment can take a big toll on wellbeing. Five Ways aren’t magic elixirs for mental illness and sometimes we’ll need expert treatment to get well again. Just as the fittest, healthiest eater is not immune to heart disease. But Five Ways are useful to every New Zealander, including those of us who have a diagnosed mental illness.

Mental health, like physical health, is something we need to factor into our every day living. It’s something we need to constantly think about and take care of so we stay well.

Doing so is worth it ... those with good mental health feel happier, are less stressed can think more clearly, have greater self esteem and can cope with the curve balls life throws at us much more easily.

Finally, we also want you to understand that most of us do have good mental health and are feeling well. The latest Canterbury Wellbeing Survey shows that, despite the earthquakes and related stressors, 81% of the region’s residents rate thair quality of life positively. That is certainly something to celebrate.