Mental health, it seems, is never out of the news, with fresh headlines every week about the rise of stress, anxiety and depression.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, work-related stress and anxiety is showing signs of increasing, while a new, large-scale study into student mental health in the UK shows that one in five students has a current mental health diagnosis.
In addition, the survey of more than 21,000 students at 140 UK universities - carried out by wellbeing experts The Insight Network and Dig-In, which delivers welcome boxes to almost half a million new students each year - found that nearly half have experienced a serious psychological condition requiring professional support.
Whether you’re in work, studying or raising a family, mental health is almost certainly on your radar, whether your own or that of a friend or relative. According to charity Anxiety UK, one in six adults in the UK will experience a common mental health condition every year.
The signs of a mental health illness
We’re designed to cope with small levels of stress and anxiety in our daily lives, but this can become a problem if negative thoughts and feelings of stress start to take over. Here are some of the signs to look out for, in yourself and in those you love:
- Worrying at some point most days
- Feeling agitated; sweating, shaking or experiencing a dry mouth
- Feeling tired most of the time
- Sleep problems; taking a long time to fall asleep, waking in the early hours or sleeping more than usual
- Feeling irritable or tense
- Having panic attacks
- Avoiding people or places
- Having irrational fears
- Generally feeling low
- Feeling hopeless or useless
- Being tearful
- Feeling guilty
- Being indecisive
- Self-harming or having suicidal thoughts
- Experiencing physical symptoms, such as aches and pains, constipation, a lack of energy or menstrual changes
- Weight loss or gain, or changes to your appetite
It’s important to note that, if you’ve recently been bereaved, grief is not the same as depression. Grief is a natural reaction to the death of someone you love and feelings of loss can come in waves, while depression is an illness causing people to feel low or sad most or all of the time.
How to manage anxiety and depression
There are a number of tools you can use to manage your mental health, but it’s important to note that chatting to your GP or a mental health professional should always be the first port of call.
Cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT, is commonly used to manage anxiety and mild depression. It’s a talking therapy that can help change the way you think and behave, and teaches you coping strategies to use in situations you find challenging.
Meditation, such as mindfulness meditation, teaches techniques to improve concentration and awareness, boosting calmness, happiness and positivity. Increasingly popular in recent years, meditation dates back several millennia and is based on the idea we can dictate our state of mind.
Antidepressants balance the chemicals in your brain affecting mood and happiness. They can improve sleep, concentration and mood - but some people experience side effects and you should only ever take medication prescribed by your GP.
In addition to all the physical benefits, being active can help reduce stress, lift mood and improve sleep - which, in turn, has a positive impact on our wellbeing. Being active doesn’t have to involve taking up a strenuous sport, with gardening, walking and even playing with children and grandchildren all counting. And exercising outdoors can be even more beneficial than working out at the gym, as you’ll benefit from vitamin D and the wonderful sounds of nature!
If you or someone you love is low, getting the right support can be difficult due to long waiting lists to see a GP and pressures on local counselling services. An increasing number of health insurance plans now include mental health services, such as ‘virtual’ phone or video appointments with a specialist, and smartphone health apps offering further options.
Have a look at our 10 small steps to boost your mental health, including surprisingly simple things like drinking plenty of water and tidying up! Our article on making your wellbeing a priority can also help.