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Mental Health Awareness Week 2024

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13th – 19th), an annual initiative led by the Mental Health Foundation, to promote the benefits of good mental health. A week is not a long time but I celebrate any initiatives which promote the benefits of mental wellbeing – not just because of my work 🙂 – but because I’m an advocate for normalising the discussion of mental health in society. 

I am also always eager to promote the fact that our mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically intertwined so I am pleased the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘Movement: Moving More for our Mental Health’. 

Mental and physical health or simply ‘health’?

As my study and work in mental health has progressed, I have wondered more and more if we would be better served to stop talking about mental health and physical health as two separate entities and instead talk about everything as ‘health’. By continuing to discuss mental and physical health individually, a division is maintained, when in fact they are both really elements of physical health. 

One of the reasons why I think the division is unhelpful is that mental health issues are often misunderstood which means individuals do not receive the support and understanding they deserve. If someone is physically unwell, for example with a chest infection or a broken leg, it is likely the people around them, at home, work and socially, will wish them a speedy recovery and do what they can to help them with things like ensuring they get adequate rest, collecting prescriptions and lifts to the hospital. But if someone is mentally unwell e.g. with anxiety or depression, it is often the case that they do not receive similar levels of support, help and understanding. There are many reasons why this can be the case such as their illness is not understood by those close to them, mental illness is not always taken as seriously as physical illness – the ‘get over it’ sentiments can still pervade, or people do not understand what has caused the illness in the same way they might if it was a physical issue. Also, sometimes others do not realise that simple acts of practical help like offering kind words or running errands are just as helpful to those with mental as they are to people with physical ones.

Another reason is the fact that the bi-directional relationship between mental and physical health is still not widely understood. On the face of it, this may sound a little strange as they are all part of the human system so of course they are intertwined. But the reality is that understanding of the impacts of physical health on mental health and vice versa are not yet fully in the mainstream. 

One element of this which is becoming more commonly known is the relationship between gut health and mental health. There is an increasing amount of coverage about the importance of having a vibrant gut microbiome as the gut is directly linked to the brain so gut issues such as yeast infection can trigger anxiety and poor mood. But less commonly known is how negative emotions and reactions to traumatic events can get stored in the body and lead to mental health issues, that conditions like fibromyalgia, which impacts the nervous system, are often connected with issues such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety and that people with past trauma may find it very difficult to lose weight because they do not realise their mind is holding onto the weight for safety.  

I think that when there is a wider understanding of the different things which impact the connection between mental health and physical health, it will be a lot easier for people to give support to those with mental illness and to gain a greater understanding of why the rise of mental health issues is becoming increasingly prevalent across the UK and internationally.

Mental wellbeing and physical movement

Fortunately, the connection between mental wellbeing and physical movement is already widely understood and the links between a lack of physical movement and mental ill health are well studied. 

A report produced by Mental Health Foundation for their current Mental Health Awareness Week campaign highlights how severe depression is three times more likely in people who are inactive. It also found that exercise has a positive influence on mental wellbeing across a range of issues which I regularly encounter when I meet with new clients in my counselling practice such as low self-esteem, stress, depression and anxiety. The central tenant of the report is that despite the widespread recommendations and evidence that supports the benefits of physical exercise for good mental health, 25% of their respondents’ exercise for less than half an hour per week. Barriers include finding time for exercise together with low energy, fatigue and anxiety, especially for those in the 18–24-year-old age group. You can download a copy of the full report using the link at the bottom of this page.

Starting small to build exercise as a way of life

The aim of the Mental Health Foundation during this Mental Health Awareness Week is to help people to break down the hurdles which are stopping them from exercising and to provide simple ways in which individuals can start introducing exercise more regularly into their lives.

This approach of identifying what sits behind inactivity and considering how someone can start to gently weave little elements of exercise into their lives is something which I have supported some of my clients to achieve. Sometimes it may be about reconnecting to activities they used to do but for various reasons have stopped, trying out different activities to decide which they enjoy most or figuring out how to carve out time to prioritise activity in a hectic week’s schedule. I regularly witness how by consistently adding simple activities, my clients gain marked improvements in their mental wellbeing which in turn have positive impacts on different areas of their life such as relationships, work and socially. Experiencing these changes during our work together also makes my clients feel supported to continue to find ways to carve out time for physical activity and to realise the negative impact of missing it out when events like a change to routine or sickness mean they reduce their exercise routine for a few weeks. 

I have also witnessed how people gain mental health benefits from being encouraged to exercise through group activities in their local area such as through social prescribing. Social prescribers, who work in the community and closely with GP practices to support individuals with issues such as loneliness and poor mental wellbeing, regularly work with groups of individuals to get them into exercise initiatives such as sea swimming, gardening and walks in nature. 

Ideas of how to move more

The Mental Health Foundation have put together a good list of simple advice to encourage people to be more physically active on a daily basis. The initiatives they include ideas which I definitely support such as walking and/or swimming in nature, incorporating bitesize bits of movement into your daily routine e.g. taking a break from your desk plus with finding ways to move together with other people. 

You can download a copy of the Mental Health Awareness Week Movement Report 2024 and Tips for Moving More for Mental Health below.