There was a time when a normal conversation about mental health was unthinkable; when there was only one answer expected of you when asked how you were: “I’m fine.”
Boys in particular have long been discouraged from expressing more sensitive feelings while anger has a history of being frowned upon in girls. In both instances, the mind-heart disconnect can lead to serious emotional blocks that have a tendency to find release elsewhere, either in addictive behaviour, physical outbursts, bullying or other unconstructive alternatives.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of high-profile figures such as Prince Harry, pop phenomenon Demi Lovato and US actor Ryan Reynolds, the stigma that has traditionally been attached to mental health issues is finally on the wane.
Diane Hughes, a professor of Applied Psychology at New York University, specialising in adolescent development, recognises that endorsement from celebrities has helped to bring the topic further into the mainstream “I think there is a benefit to it because it helps to normalise it a little bit,” she says. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to mental health issues, especially among teenagers, because adolescents are constantly comparing themselves to their peers and are very self-conscious.”
World Mental Health Day and initiatives such as the Young Minds’ #HelloYellow day on October 9 are also designed to revolutionize our approach to mental health, encouraging unhelpful views to be ditched in favour of dialogue and action.
According to June Donnan, Head Teacher at King’s College School La Moraleja and a pioneer in mental health training schemes within education in Spain, the day provides a focal point for practises that are woven into the curriculum at King’s schools in general as part of their High Performance Learning status. “Today is #HelloYellow, but we encourage children to talk about how they feel throughout the year and make sure they are given the language to talk about their emotions from a very young age,” she says. “We’ve been working on perseverance and resilience as part of our High Performance Learning. It’s not something new and a lot of those qualities are standing us all in good stead now.”
Just as we are told how to keep healthy physically, there are certain tools we need to keep at hand to address wellbeing issues, which are part and parcel of life and not just pertinent to the current crisis or the lot of the unlucky few. Physical health and mental health, we now know, are inseparable and the first step to addressing issues relating to either is to acknowledge they exist.
“There is nothing better than talking about health – mental health, but above all health in general because we usually tend to take psychological wellbeing for granted – the word ‘mental’ often leads us to think about difficulties or disorders,” says Sinews Psychologist and School Counsellor at King’s College Alicante, Irene Magallón González. “Taking care of our health also means taking care of our minds, feelings and thoughts, because they are all present in everyday life, affecting our decisions, actions, goals and relationships.”
But, for some reason, there is an enduring belief that any mental health problem reflects badly on us as individuals while a physical illness is out of our hands, despite the fact that there is plenty of scientific evidence to the contrary.
Neuroscientist and Psychiatrist, Dr. Judson Brewer who is Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Centre at Brown University, US, explains how anxiety can build. “There’s the survival brain and then the neocortex which is involved in thinking and planning,” he says. “Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we don’t know something, the restless urge to act is our brains saying, ‘I need information, go find it.’ Worry as a mental behaviour results in us feeling like we’re doing something, even if we don’t have information.”
Dr. Brewer suggests grounding activities such as mindfulness to combat anxiety, which was one of the activities on the #HelloYellow day program at King’s.
“Apart from pupils and staff all coming to school in yellow, there is fundraising, mindfulness, yoga and talks on mental health, just to flag it up as something we can talk about,” says June Donnan. “If the teachers talk about it, then the students will. We will always be role models in everything we do.”
Meanwhile, a similar scenario was unfolding at King’s College Madrid, where Head of Primary, Paula Parkinson, explains that the school went “all out”, making bunting, masks and emotion jars as well as raising funds for the ANAR foundation for at-risk children.
“It’s an important day for us and so enlightening to see the whole school demonstrating their support by wearing something yellow; the playground is alight with the brightness of the colour, bringing a real sense of positivity and hope for the future,” she says.
Interestingly, the students are totally on side, with Matilde, Year 6, saying, “You need to understand that your mental health is important; sometimes people don’t understand their feelings and don’t talk to anyone about them.”
Meanwhile Diego, also from Year 6, adds, “It’s also important to raise money for our charity (ANAR) to help them help people to talk about their mental health. You often feel better when you talk to someone.”
But, like June, Paula is keen to highlight the fact that this is not a one-off. With the help of year round props such as ‘emotions boards’ in all the classrooms, the conversation remains open.
“From a very early age, we help the children to recognise their different emotions and to feel confident to say that sometimes, ‘It is okay not to be okay’,” she says. “We explore with the children how they can look after themselves, make healthy choices, find time to relax as well as the different things that they can do to help them to feel better, which may be very different for each individual. The aim is to ensure they know how to take care of their mental health now and in the future.”
On the coast, Acting Head of Primary at King’s College Alicante, Sharmila Gandhi, also stresses that mental health awareness is not confined to a specific day in the year. “We know that this is not just about wearing yellow on a particular day and raising money [also for ANAR],” she explains. “It is about ensuring that we think about children’s mental health generally. We encourage teachers to take some time during the school day to do yoga with the children as well as having regular circle times when children can share their feelings and any concerns that they may have. Providing children with opportunities to talk openly, without feeling like they are being judged, is extremely important for their wellbeing.”
Whatever area of our lives, whether it is making friends, getting good academic results, learning how to win and lose in sport or, as is currently the case, getting through an unprecedented situation, good mental health is essential and, like physical health, requires the recognition and acceptance of the entire spectrum of emotions.
As School Counsellor, Irene Magallón González, points out, “Enjoying good mental health does not mean not experiencing negative emotions. Along with the positive ones, they have an important role in our psychological wellbeing, as we use both to interpret, learn, value and protect ourselves. It’s time to appreciate our mental health a little more because these abstract concepts are with us every day – we accept them, promote them, fight against them and transform them as we seek a psychological balance and a sense of wellbeing.”
- Don’t pretend to be feeling okay if you’re not. Honesty releases pressure – a problem aired makes life far easier to deal with in general.
- Help others – it puts our own worries in perspective and stops us from fuelling them with our undivided attention.
- Find a mindful activity that both relaxes and absorbs you; whatever is worrying us can wait. Tell yourself, ‘I’ll worry about that later.’
- Eat well and exercise – exercise is a way to ground ourselves and eating well is the basis for good health in general.
- Tune in to people who seek out the humour in situations and try seeing the funny side yourself. Numerous studies suggest that laughter releases beta-endorphins, a chemical in the brain that creates a sense of joy and counters the adrenalin and cortisol linked to anxiety.
- If you can’t laugh, try a smile. Your brain will release dopamine that will help to lift your mood.