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Protecting mental wellbeing
Posted 8 Mar 2022
OPINION piece published in The West Australian, 8 Mar 2022.
As we prepare to reconnect with the rest of the world, Western Australians can be proud of the steps we have taken to protect ourselves. Over 95% of us have received at least two vaccine doses and 99% of those aged 50 and over are now double vaccinated. Overwhelmingly, Western Australians have shown a willingness to step up and take responsibility for their health and the health of others.
As Omicron spreads throughout our state the protective behaviours we’ve learned during the last two years will be even more important. There’s every reason to believe Western Australians will continue to do what is asked of them.
We may be well-prepared, but the prospect of many more of us contracting COVID-19 is concerning. The most vulnerable – the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions – will also be the most anxious. Even before this new phase, the mental wellbeing of many Western Australians has been impacted. Enforced separations, personal loss and constant uncertainty have left many of us exhausted, anxious and, in some cases, grief-stricken.
Recognising that some Western Australians will be feeling particularly anxious, the WA Government has launched a new campaign sharing practical steps to help manage feelings of increased stress and anxiety. The Learn to Look after You campaign is a practical toolkit to help us respond in the short term to extraordinary times.
Strategies to help us manage when we feel under pressure are valuable and this campaign is well-timed. But mental wellbeing isn’t something we should pay attention to only in a crisis. Our lifestyle and behaviours can help us build our resilience and mental wellbeing, so that in times of acute pressure we are well-equipped to cope.
The Act Belong Commit campaign is well known in Western Australia. It distils into three words the things that protect our mental wellbeing. The message of the campaign is to stay active (mentally, physically, socially, spiritually, culturally), to stay connected to others, and to have things that give us a sense of purpose and meaning.
The message may be familiar, but it has never been more important. If ever there was a time to protect our mental wellbeing, it is now.
Just as we can measure physical fitness, research by Curtin University’s Mentally Healthy WA has shown that certain activities are associated with higher scores using the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale – an internationally recognised measure of a population’s mental wellbeing. These activities include simply chatting with others daily, getting together with friends daily, being physically active daily, spending time in nature daily, doing activities that require concentrating daily, practicing spirituality daily and helping another person each week. What’s more there is a dose effect for these behaviours – the more often an individual does them, the higher their mental wellbeing score tends to be.
These are protective behaviours for our mental wellbeing in just the same way that hand washing, and mask wearing are protective behaviours against the virus.
One of the strengths of the Act Belong Commit message is that it is infinitely adaptable. In this next stage of the pandemic, some of our favourite activities may become more difficult but we can plan ahead to find COVID-safe alternatives. A walk in nature is always a good idea and may be an ideal change from the gym treadmill. Whatever happens we can still read for pleasure, listen to music, call a friend. It really doesn’t matter what form our ‘Act’ takes, we just need to make sure we are doing something to protect our wellbeing.
Staying connected to others is essential for our mental wellbeing but as the virus spreads, people may look to minimise physical contact. Finding new ways to stay close to people will be vital – particularly for older people not used to using technology to connect, and who may depend on daily face-to-face interactions. Because many of them will be particularly vulnerable to COVID they are the very people most likely to retreat to the safety of their homes, protecting themselves against the virus but perhaps at real cost to their mental wellbeing. Let’s make sure none of our seniors is left disconnected from the community in the weeks and months ahead.
Soon some of the things that provide us with a sense of purpose, like in-person volunteering with a community group, may become unavailable. Identifying a Covid safe alternative before that happens will mean we can still find ways to help others.
2022 will spring more surprises and there will be things that happen that are outside our control. Let’s not wait until our mental wellbeing is suffering to decide to invest in our resilience. We have acted to protect our physical health and our mental wellbeing is no less important. Let’s revisit the message of Act Belong Commit to help us navigate this pandemic and build our resilience in the long term.
Author: Dr Christina Pollard is Associate Professor Public Health Priorities in the School of Population Health at at Curtin University and Director of Mentally Healthy WA.