Why We Need to Talk About Mental Health

In a recent 50 Faces 50 Lives article I wrote about the two most transformative events of my life- the birth of my son and having him in my life and the experience in 1998 of a complete physical and mental breakdown. Let me point out that these 2 events are not causative or linked! But I’ve become a campaigner of late for an open conversation about mental health issues, particularly among older adults.

Why? Because Beyond Blue estimates that between 10-15% of adults will experience depression in their later years. The rates for adults living in residential aged care is as high as 25%. Beyond Blue says ” unfortunately many people over 65 still seem to feel there’s a stigma attached to depression and anxiety viewing them as weaknesses or character flaws rather than a genuine health condition.”

We were bought up to be tough and not “whinge.” The ” blues” would pass. Think positive. Use mindfulness. Other people have it worse than you. Have you tried yoga? Keep busy, take your mind off things. Or as a dear friend said to me back in 1998, “you’re just highly strung.”

In America a government report on the state of mental health and ageing estimates 20% of people over 55 experience some kind of mental health illness such as bipolar, depression, anxiety and cognitive impairment. Mental health issues are often implicated in suicide cases.

Here are 10 practical ways to help you stay well mentally

  1. Be prepared for changes. Learn how to build your resilience and understand the ways of managing change. It’s not too late to seek the services of a life coach or therapist BEFORE there are mental health repercussions
  2. Talk to others about problems and concerns, My close friends and I have an afternoon cuppa about every 2 weeks. Most times its just a friendly chat. Other times we pour out our worries and jokingly say, ” that was such a good therapy session!”
  3. Ask for help- this is really hard for some people but again its about learning how to do this.  You say.. everyone’s busy but to put it bluntly no one’s too busy to attend a funeral… and that’s how serious mental health issues can become.
  4. Keep in touch- social isolation is a primary factor in anxiety and depression
  5. Seek medical help. If you had cancer you’d seek medical help. If you have clinical depression you may need seretonin in the form of medication. Depression is an illness. Think of it like any other serious illness.
  6. Look after your general health- eat and drink sensibly and exercise
  7. Find a purpose in life. It doesn’t have to be a big ” change the world” type purpose. Keep developing a purpose- some goals- a simple to-do list that links expectations of yourself- purpose and a sense of achievement.
  8. SLEEP! This is really hard for older people. When I had my major depressive breakdown the psychiatrist and I worked out that I had not slept through the night for over 3 years. You need deep sleep for healthy brain functioning. See a sleep specialist or your GP
  9. Monitor yourself- your moods, your level of anxiety if you are prone to mood changes. Keep a health diary for one month- that will give you some facts to deal with-each day note the food you eat, how much and what you drink, your mood on a 5 point scale where 1 is good/ happy and 5 is a low/ dark mood, hours of sleep, exercise
  10. Talk to your family and friends about mental health generally. Educate others about its OK to talk about this.

Back in 1998 I was working in a very demanding corporate job. I was diagnosed with major clinical depression and chronic fatigue. In those days you risked losing your job if you told the company of this diagnosis. I told them I had a serious kidney infection and needed some hospital care. I was extremely anxious that they would visit me in the psychiatric ward. They never did! Among my friends and family I was ” just tired.” There was no part time work for executives and after 5 weeks the company suggested I might want to step down from my senior role and take on a consultant position instead. The aura of silence and the “unspoken” added another layer of stress to my illnesses. Feeling I had to lie to save my job added another layer of stress which ended in futility. I resigned instead.

I had to learn. How to monitor my health and manage any symptoms before they became serious. I sought professional help. I have had no bouts of depression since 2013. Anxiety knocks on my door from time to time but it’s manageable.

So now I probably err on the side of being over zealous about opening the conversation about mental health. At a dinner party I might be heard saying- ” Could you pass the wine please? Oh by the way, did I tell you about my nervous breakdown and how I survived?”!!!

10 October 2019 | Living Well

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