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Make mental wellness something to strive for this year.

Posted 8 Feb 2021

OPINION piece published in The West Australian, 8 Feb 2021.

Just as we were thinking we were well on the way to a post coronavirus world, a five-day COVID lockdown has reminded us that, yes, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic.

While Australia has so far been remarkably successful in combatting this health crisis, most of us have become aware of an increase in the base level of anxiety and stress in our community during the past year.

The recent lockdown was a reminder of what others have experienced for months on end.

For some of us it was a chance to take stock and consider whether the choices we make every day are giving us the best chance to live a full and happy life.

Half of us will experience a mental illness during our lifetime and the burden of mental illness in our community is rising.

Today, most of us are far more comfortable talking about mental illness than our parents. What we’re not so good at talking about is mental wellness.

Being well isn’t just the absence of disease. Just as someone who happens not to have cancer, diabetes or heart disease isn’t necessarily the picture of good physical health, a person who hasn’t been diagnosed with depression, anxiety or an acute mental illness may not be truly mentally healthy.

The WHO defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. Most of us will admit there’s room for improvement in our own “state of wellbeing”.

Many Australians live with less-than-optimal mental health without being aware of it. It limits potential and makes it harder to cope with unexpected adverse events. In good times we may be able to function effectively even with poor mental health, but when times are tough it can be very different. It’s easy to blame the stresses of modern living — all of which are very real.

But while many things are outside our control, we certainly aren’t helpless when it comes to our mental health.

In 1953, Professor Jeremy Morris discovered that bus conductors who spent their day climbing the stairs of London double-deckers were half as likely to have a heart attack as their more sedentary colleagues behind the wheel.

It was a breakthrough in preventive heath, showing the clear link between physical exercise and heart health. Suddenly being physically active wasn’t just a way to keep fit, it was a vital preventive measure.

Just as we know the lifestyle associated with good physical health, we now know the habits and behaviours linked to mental wellness.

Most of us know from experience that being active, spending time with others, and finding something we can be passionate about, all feel good.

But just as people before Professor Morris’ study knew exercise made you feel good without knowing just how important it was, most of us don’t realise that those three things — being active, connecting with others and finding a cause — are actually essential for our mental health and provide a powerful defence against mental illnesses.

In 2008, Act Belong Commit was launched — the world’s first campaign to encourage people to adopt behaviours that set them on the path to mental wellbeing. More than a decade on, this simple message is arguably more important than ever.

But knowing and doing are different, and it’s putting those three words into action that matters. Not all mental health conditions are avoidable but most of us underestimate how far we can take control of our mental wellbeing. Let’s give ourselves the best chance of a happy, mentally healthy life, by doing more, connecting more and adopting a new cause or passion this year. It feels good.

Author: Dr Christina Pollard is Associate Professor of Public Health Priorities at Curtin University