From using anti-depressants to helping others with a mental health problem, Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind, answers your burning questions about mental health.
The conversation and attitude towards mental health has shifted significantly in the last 10 years. It started with charity campaigns, that were later funded by government and lottery, and has now gone mainstream across big broadcasters producing content on mental health issues. In April alone, the BBC announced a major new pan-BBC Mental Health season and HRH The Duke of Sussex and Oprah Winfrey announced that they were becoming partners in a new mental health documentary series for Apple TV in 2020.
The topic of mental health is no longer taboo, and more of us are joining the conversation. But many of us still have questions…
We asked Mind expert Stephen Buckley 10 questions that we might otherwise be too afraid or worried to ask.
1. What causes depression?
We all have days when we feel down, but those feelings usually pass without having too much impact on our lives. But if they last beyond a couple of weeks or you feel as though things are getting worse, it could be a sign that you’re experiencing depression.
Symptoms of depression vary from person to person, but often include feeling low, numb, worthless or without hope. You may find you sleep too much or too little, don’t eat properly, and withdraw from social contact with friends and family. Some people will even have thoughts about self-harming or suicide.
There are lots of reasons why someone might feel depressed, but sometimes there isn’t any obvious reason. It can be caused by a difficult life event – losing a job, relationship difficulties, or physical health problems like illness and disability, or low self-esteem.
2. How can I tell if someone has a mental health problem?
Common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety affect one in four people. But it’s still something that lots of people find hard to talk about, which can mean that many people keep their feelings about having a mental health problem a secret, even from close family and friends. You can’t always tell if someone has a mental illness – people might look as though they’re fine and doing well, when actually they’re silently struggling.
If someone has bipolar disorder, they may show significant mood swings, or appear more withdrawn if they are dealing with self-harm or negative thoughts, but everything is dependent on the individual and there is no one way to know whether someone is unwell.
3. How can I speak to and help someone with a mental health problem like depression or anxiety?
Here are some suggestions for how you can help people living with anxiety and depression:
Encourage them to seek help
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is encourage them to seek appropriate treatment. You can reassure them by letting them know that help is out there, and that you will be there to support them.
Don’t be afraid to bring it up
It takes a lot for someone to say, ‘I need help’, but it doesn’t hurt to raise the subject yourself. Try to be open about depression and difficult emotions, so they know that it’s OK to talk about what they’re experiencing. Sometimes, you don’t have to explicitly talk about mental health to find out how they are doing – it can be as simple as texting them to let them know you’re thinking of them, or suggesting that you go out for dinner or a walk.
Don’t blame them
Try not to blame them for feeling anxious or depressed, or tell them to ‘pull themselves together’. They are probably already blaming themselves, and criticism is likely to make them feel even worse.
Someone with depression may get more irritable, and be more liable to misunderstand others, or feel misunderstood, than usual. They may need reassurance in some situations.
Look after yourself
Your mental health is important, too, and looking after someone else could put a strain on your wellbeing. If you are able to stay well, you are more likely to be able to provide good support for longer. This could include trying to stay healthy and physically active, confiding in someone – other than the person you are worried for – taking a break from time to time and being realistic about what you can and can’t do yourself. Mind has lots of advice on helping someone else.
4. What do I do if it is an emergency?
In 2017, we lost 5,821 people to suicide in the UK, and every one is a tragedy. Suicides are not inevitable; they can be prevented with the right support in place.
It’s essential that services are able to respond when people reach out; from early treatment to help people manage their mental health problems as soon as possible, to crisis care services that can step in when someone becomes acutely unwell.
If you’re feeling suicidal or are concerned about someone else, confide in someone you know, contact your GP, call 999, go to A&E or call the Samaritans (116 123). You can also find more information on the Mind website, through Mind’s confidential Infoline 0300 123 3393 or you can text 86463.
5. What does it mean to be sectioned?
Being sectioned means that you are kept in hospital under the Mental Health Act 1983. You can be sectioned if your own health or safety are at risk, or to protect other people. There are different types of sections, each with different rules to keep you in hospital. How long you have to stay in hospital depends under which section you are hospitalised. Before you can be lawfully sectioned, you will be assessed by a team of health professionals.
If you are sectioned, you can be kept in hospital, stopped from leaving the ward and given treatment for your mental health problems, possibly without your consent. You can lose certain rights, including the right to leave hospital freely. If you’re in this situation, it’s really important to know your rights under the Mental Health Act.
6. What is a personality disorder?
If you have been diagnosed with a personality disorder it doesn’t mean that you’re fundamentally different from anyone else, but at times you might need extra support.
The word ‘personality’ refers to the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that makes each of us the individuals that we are. These affect the way we think, feel and behave towards others and ourselves.
We don’t always think, feel and behave in exactly the same way – it depends on the situation we are in, the people with us and many other things. But we mostly tend to behave in fairly predictable ways.
Personality disorders are a type of mental health problem where your attitudes, beliefs and behaviours cause you longstanding problems in your life. Your experience of personality disorder is unique to you. However, you may often experience difficulties in how you think about yourself and others. You may find it difficult to change these unwanted patterns.
7. What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
The term PTSD is used to describe a range of psychological symptoms, which can follow traumatic events. PTSD can be triggered by anything that consciously, or unconsciously, reminds an individual of a specific trauma in their lives. For some people, this is a single, major, significant event – such as a car accident – and for others an ongoing series of events, such as being in conflict zones, or experiencing abuse.
Symptoms of PTSD don’t necessarily emerge straight away, and in some, don’t develop until many years after the event. They can include vivid flashbacks, nightmares, lack of sleep and feeling emotionally cut-off. PTSD is surprisingly common – as many as 10% of the population will experience it at some time in their lives.
If someone has been living with distressing symptoms for over a month after a traumatic event they should see their GP, who can refer them for specialist help. Effective treatment does exist, and you can recover from PTSD.
8. Are drugs or therapy better for mental health conditions?
While antidepressants can be effective for some, they are not the solution for everyone and are not generally recommended as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression. Anyone taking antidepressants should be made aware of the possible pros and cons for them, and they should have their treatment reviewed regularly.
Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and counselling are becoming more widely available as part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme. Giving people a choice of treatments is key, whether that’s drugs, talking therapies, or alternatives such as arts therapy or exercise.
9. What is the best way to improve my mental wellbeing?
We all have mental health to look after, as well as physical health, and the way we live our lives has a direct influence on them both. There are lots of small things we can change to improve or maintain good mental health and wellbeing without spending lots of money to do it.
Eating fresh fruit and vegetables daily helps provide the nutrients needed to nourish your mind and body. Keeping regular meal times and choosing foods that release energy slowly, such as oats and unrefined wholegrains, also help. Reducing your intake of caffeine, alcohol and sugary foods in the evening also helps as they can all disturb your sleep patterns.
There’s a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Living with a mental health problem can affect how well you sleep, and poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mental health, so prioritising sleep can help both with maintaining your wellbeing and your recovery.
There is strong evidence to suggest that the combined mix of colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors act together to stimulate our senses, which helps increase our overall wellbeing. This means that gardening and other outdoor hobbies often provide a brilliant alternative to traditional sports and exercise.
Structured physical activity can play a key role in someone’s recovery from a mental health problem and in staying well for years to come. When you exercise, your brain chemistry changes through the release of ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins.
Joining activity groups such as a running club is a fantastic way of improving your social network. Being sociable and connecting with other people is rewarding in its own right and can significantly improve mental wellbeing. Group yoga or Pilates classes can help you learn breathing techniques, which can encourage you to relax and switch off from external stresses.
10. I feel quite low sometimes. Should I see a therapist?
One of the most important things to do if you’re feeling down is to open up. Most people feel more comfortable confiding in a close friend or family member in the first instance. Often simply talking about it helps. If the problem continues and begins to interfere with everyday life, you can speak to your GP, who can talk you through the support that’s available. For more advice and support, visit the Mind website.
As a Vitality health insurance member, you have a range of mental health support available to you. From a Headspace subscription, to mental health forums and talking therapy. Log in to Member Zone for the details.