How can we improve our mental health?
This is the question we’re asking to Rachel Kelly. in our podcast with her here. She is a best selling Writer, Mental Health Campaigner, Public Speaker. She is a survivor of depression and now speaks publicly about her experience and recovery. Over the years, she has developed strategies to improve her mental health and share her knowledge with others.
What is your story with depression? What kind of solutions have you found to recover from it and improve your mental health?
I had personal experience of suffering from severe depression. The main treatment for mental illness, depression or anxiety is a drug based approach. It’s been nearly 20 years back and nothing has changed. A medical approach is still the main approach, you might get a little bit of therapy if you’re lucky, cognitive behavioral therapy.
People can have depression in different ways. Suffering from mental illness is very challenging. You have to get the right care that you need- whether it’s a psychiatrist or therapist. And I would always say that apart from medication, I do feel that a much broader, more holistic approach is much more what I believe in now.
Who introduced you to alternative ways? like doing something for your wellbeing to get better?
I was really out of action for two years, being fragile and vulnerable. So I decided that I would almost become my own mental health correspondent. I would really try and find out what can I do to look after myself, what were the good evidence-based strategies, how I can build up a toolbox and experience with different approaches. The past 7 years, I’ve really been investigating mindful strategies, therapeutic strategies, nutritional strategies.
I decided to change my diet, that was a really big step forward.
My GP mentioned Happy foods. I discovered there is some interesting evidence now around the effect of nutrition on mental health. And the three things I would recommend would be fish, dark green leafy vegetables and dark chocolate. I decided to team up with a nutritionist who was very interested in this area. I’ve met a wonderful woman called Alice Macintosh . She holds a degree in nutritional therapy and a degree in biomedical science from the university. It led us to very happy journey. We did a book together, the Happy kitchen, a good mood food, looking at 150 different studies with some pretty good evidence, on what we could do to eat for happiness.
I work alongside mental health charities. I’m an ambassador and I organize good mood food workshops for some of the people who are suffering and we’re seeing enormous changes, even in one day. I find it such a positive way of looking at nutrition. To help our digestive system to thrive, we need a much more varied diet. The ancestral man would eat around 150 different ingredients each week, whereas modern men only eat around 20 ingredients each week. Studies show that eating with much more variety is very good for your mental health. It helps our microbiome, it helps the balance of the healthy bacteria in our gut. And you probably know about some of this gut-brain connection. The gut being our second brain, there’s so much science out there. Be more adventurous about food and ingredients.
What are the root causes and common factors that people experience that affect their mental health?
There are different reasons that people are more vulnerable:
- Stress is definitely an incubator for depression and anxiety
- Big life changes: a bereavement, redundancy, divorce
- People who have a big hormonal change; adolescents, postnatal women, menopausal women, menopausal men
- There is also probably a genetic link, and this is a big new area of research
Some people may have predispositions and we know that women a bit more vulnerable to depression and anxiety than men.
I was lucky to be so unwell because it forced me to change. So I suppose the gift in what happened to me is that it got me to a place where I really feel I’m thriving now.
Why do you think that we don’t really talk about mental health in general or even know about the signs of stress and anxiety?
Stigma has been a huge problem. For decades, we have concentrated more on physical aspect than on psychological and mental health. This is reflected in the NHS and in the budget and in priorities. It’s absolutely reflected in research. The research budget for mental illnesses is tiny compared to the research budget for physical illnesses. We have a chronic understaffing and a huge underfunding of mental health charities compared to physical health charities.
I think it is beginning to change. For example, the Royals coming forward and doing together a campaign. In general, people don’t want to be seen to be what they perceived to be weak, but that’s hopefully changing. A lot of anxiety comes from being worried about the future and being in the future instead of the present and regretting the past.We could be learning so much more, for example a breathing approach, which is a great way to be centered, in the present to feel less stressed.
How can we prevent this from happening to us? Are they any warning signs, how do we observe and understand ourselves a bit better if we’re not well?
I’m a huge believer in being your own detective. You have to start becoming more observant and more mindful.
Pay attention rather than rush and allow yourself time.
There are around 20 symptoms which are characteristic of people who are suffering from anxiety and depression; including things like insomnia, not taking joy in the things that you traditionally would take joy in, catastrophizing everything, rumination when you go round and round, obsessive thinking, lack of energy, lack of appetite. Some people eat much too much, some people don’t eat enough. There is a whole variety of symptoms and everybody has a different sort of behavior or what triggers their behavior. For me, it was insomnia.
Do you think there are types of people or professions that are more likely to lead to a mental illness?
Certain groups of the population are more vulnerable. Among the most vulnerable groups are young girls. This is relatively new. It’s kind of emerged in the last 10 years and we don’t quite know why, but maybe something to do with social media and the pressure that young girls have. Another vulnerable at-risk group is much older people, which is probably to do with loneliness or lack of social networks. There’s a third group who are young men, who are most at risk of suicide.
In terms of personality types, there is psychological research around perfectionists. They tend to be more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Also, in general people who suffer are the people who feel that they are overloaded and they are not in charge of their workload.
What do you really love doing and worked really well, tell us about your techniques a bit more?
There are two techniques – a psychological one and a physical one.
Focusing on things I’m grateful for and focusing on the positive
Our mind and our neural pathways are constantly being reformed. This is a very positive idea that is neuroplasticity; our minds aren’t fixed and the pathways we create reflect what we pay attention to, so we should learn to pay more attention to positives. The more we do it, the more it becomes easier. I use the gratitude journal and I scribbled down things that I’m grateful for.
I used breathing exercise all the time
Learn how to change the way you breathe, using the belly breathing for example; you put one hand on your chest, one hand on your stomach, then breathe all the way down to your stomach and your stomach expands and contracts like a balloon. I use some of the three-step mindful breathing exercises which is about focusing and coming back in and accepting the breathing, rather than changing the breathing. Accepting things as opposed to trying to change stuff is important. What we resist persists. So I think to cultivate an attitude of acceptance.
Movement in your day to day life is important
Try to introduce much more movement. Get up every 45 minutes, just moving off a sedentary lifestyle. You have to introduce a bit of walking in your commute or a bit of biking or have your whole day dotted through with movement all the time.
It sounds like it’s also more self-care, right?
Yes, absolutely. There was a big psychological shift for me which was moving from the thinking that you have to look after other people, your children, your colleagues etc And put your oxygen mask on first and look after yourself or you can’t look after everybody else.
What’s your number one thing to improve our wellbeing? And something that we can maybe do every day?
Find yourself a mantra or an inspirational quote that can define your purpose.
When I was very ill and in hospital, my mom was with me, and she started repeating this mantra that comes from the Bible: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’. That’s my purpose. I was very unwell, but it’s made me stronger. I’m now trying to share how our weakness can become a strength.