By Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help.
‘Prevention is better than cure’. It’s an old adage, and one that we’re now beginning to apply to mental health as well as physical. The World Federation for Mental Health has decided that the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day should be Suicide Prevention, reflecting the seriousness of what is effectively a worldwide epidemic: suicide is currently the biggest killer of 15-29 year olds globally. This has to change, and of course here prevention is the only option.
What can we do for ourselves and each other before crisis point is reached? While we hear a lot about initiatives aimed at improving access to services and treatment for those who are struggling with poor mental health, perhaps there is a place, too, for a more general prevention message: what can those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy good (or even just ok) mental health do to maintain it? What steps can we take to ‘check in’ and at least preserve, if not improve, how we’re thinking and feeling?
If we want to live long, healthy lives, most of us quickly learn not to take our physical health for granted. Nowadays we are all better informed than ever about the benefits of healthy diet, regular exercise, and the perils of smoking and drinking. Many of us are offered health MOTs by our employers; if you’re aged between 40 and 74, the NHS will provide a free health check every 5 years. That’s our bodies checked over, then; what about our minds?
A tool I learned about some years ago, and sometimes use with clients (and very often with myself), is the ‘wheel of life’. It’s a circle divided, pie-like, into 8 portions, each headed with a different area of concern eg family, career, personal growth. The idea is that, without thinking for too long, you ‘grade’ each segment with a score from 1 to 10, 1 being low satisfaction and 10 being “couldn’t be better”, and shade in the segment up to that number. Once you’ve completed them all, you have a picture of where you are and how you are feeling about many aspects of your life right at the moment. (Of course you can do the same exercise with a simple list, but the visual element and the circular shape seems to work best for most people). You can also, if you wish, complete the tool for where you were 5 years, 1 year or even 1 week ago, and identify any patterns or swings; or indeed where you’d like to be, an interesting exercise in reflection: can anybody ever really achieve a ‘10’ across the board?
While undoubtedly simplistic, there are various benefits to this exercise. One, it helps to highlight the things that are going well. Especially when we’re in a low mood, it can be easy to catastrophise and really hard to acknowledge that some parts of our life are ok. Maybe we’re blessed with good physical health right now; maybe we have great friends. If you do the yearly or five yearly exercise, it’s also an effective reminder that nothing stays the same. Whether things are really bad OR really good – it won’t last. When we’re ‘in it’, that can be hard to remember.
Finally, the wheel shows me clearly where the big gaps are and where I need to focus. Anything that I’ve scored a 5 or under, in my book, needs my attention. It’s not about moving mountains, either; it’s about little increments. I look at a low scoring category and ask myself ‘what can I do to move this up 1 or 2 points?’ It helps me think about the things I can genuinely influence, take some ownership and make a plan – however small.
There’s something about this time of year, the turning of the season and looking towards the year’s close, that always makes me feel reflective. As the nights draw in and the temperature drops, many of us also start to feel a bit low, and perhaps become a bit introspective. The world feels an uncertain and at times downright scary place right now and I think the collective mood isn’t great for our individual emotional wellbeing either. So even if you consider yourself to be functioning well, it’s as good a time as any for a mental health MOT: prevention has to be better than cure.