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I speak to Dr Jenna Kirtley, Clinical Psychologist, about maintaining our wellbeing and having a more positive and proactive approach to mental health

Hi Jenna, so what does a Clinical Psychologist do?

As a clinical psychologist we are trained to a doctorate level as it is important that we have a high level of knowledge around mental health, human behaviours, emotions and distress. This knowledge allows us to carry out research, which is our way of approving any interventions that we might do with individuals or groups. We mainly assess people and offer a programme of interventions according to their needs, with the main aim being to reduce distress and improve psychological wellbeing. We’re doing that by drawing on the research and we’re known as scientist practitioners as we bring in that research element, making sure any approach we use has that scientific backing. We are usually quite active in continuing this research, being involved in developing services and guiding other health practitioners. There are a range of interventions we use, one of which could be therapy, and this would be based on an individual’s direct needs. We provide a space where people can come and explore their difficulties and find ways to make positive changes in their lives.

Many of us could benefit from improving our wellbeing in some way, but does that mean we should all have therapy?

No, I genuinely don’t believe everyone needs to go to therapy. I think that prevention is so much more important and if we understand that we all have mental health and we all need to look after this, just as much as our physical health, then there are ways that we could be actively involved in looking after ourselves.

What are some of those ways in which we could look after our mental health?

There are a variety of things that people can do and it is very dependent on the individual. A good place to start is to look at the 5 ways to wellbeing which capture the main ways that people could look after themselves, one being to keep active. This isn’t just about looking good, but also feeling good; exercise releases dopamine which can improve our mood. Connecting with others is crucial, not just to talk about mental health, which is also really important, but also spending time with people you care about. Learning is so valuable because we have an innate need for that sense of achievement and to grow and learn something new. To give and helping others is another way and we know through research that it also makes us feel good; helping a neighbour or doing volunteer work can have a real positive impact on how we feel about ourselves. Finally, taking notice and being in the present moment and aware of what is in our lives is important, as is connecting with nature. It’s about noticing the small things in life that make you feel good and appreciating them.

I have only recently heard about these 5 ways to wellbeing so this is great. Is there anything else you would add?

On top of these 5 ways there are also things like eating well. Many of us enjoy a bit of cake or pie so it’s not about saying “go on a diet”, it’s about having that healthy balance as food has a huge impact on our mood. Excess sugar or alcohol can lead to fatigue and bring our mood down. Sleep is so important so we may want to wind down before bedtime or set a good routine, perhaps doing some good breathing exercises too. We’re so busy we often don’t focus on our breath. Breathing works on that calming, soothing system and we really need that time to rest and digest. Beyond that, it’s also about doing things we enjoy. Making sure we have enough breaks in our day and for holidays. Having a good work-life balance. It's important to consider what you value, about what matters to you, and setting goals in line with those values. If you value spending time with family but you’re working so much that this is unattainable then you’re not going to feel good about yourself because you’re not living in line with those values. Ask yourself what you value and how you can set goals in line with this, then you have something to commit to and work towards. Really importantly, it’s about being kind to yourself. Making time for yourself. Many of us may feel that the pressure is always on – life can be so stressful. We need to be able to step back and notice of what we need right now (i.e. a bit of time for me) and slow down. Know that it’s ok to do that; in fact you can do that and you should do that.

It’s so refreshing for someone to tell you that it’s ok to slow down and that you need to look after yourself. I can’t imagine many people would disagree with this. However I feel there is still a great deal of difficulty around having those sorts of conversations.

Do you believe there is still a stigma around mental health discussions? How can we start to overcome this?

I do think there’s still a stigma around mental health discussions though things have improved even within our lifetime. We’ve moved a little away from the traditional “just get on with it” attitude though, unfortunately, it hasn’t completely disappeared. There are definite pressures in society to be seen as able to cope all of the time and to be acting as if we are ok.

How do we tackle this? It needs to be a top-down approach. The changes need to come from the government; it is their responsibility to tackle social injustice first and then this should filter down into schools, workplaces and communities in general, who also have a role in promoting positive mental health. This could lead to a change in attitudes in society; in recognising and emphasising that we all have mental health; that we should take time to look after ourselves; that it’s ok not to be ok. There are still a lot of unhealthy beliefs about emotions - like the belief that we should hide emotions and just “get on with it” which may have passed down from previous generations. In a sense we all have a responsibility to shift that narrative. An example would be for schools and parents to model normalising emotions so that children can learn that there are things that we can do to look after our health; how to have good self-care skills; how we soothe; showing them breathing exercises; how to be mindful. So when our children grow up they are better equipped to deal with their emotions and they have these coping strategies at their fingertips. This is something that could be implemented in the workplace and so forth.

There are various platforms we can use to promote mental health. Social media definitely has its benefits when it comes to raising awareness. It’s easier than ever to find out about events run via various charities and there is so much going on. The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) have a Mental Health Awareness Week (10th-16th May) whose focus is on prevention being better than cure. They believe that until we tackle social justice then we’re never really going to tackle mental health so the change has to come from within communities and from the government. By getting involved or going to these events, as individuals, then we’re getting people talking about mental health. We’re working on reducing stigma and promoting good mental health. What is unique about the MHF’s approach is that each year they have a theme. You learn more about that theme and how that connects with mental health. This year the theme they have selected is nature

That’s a really interesting theme. What can people do to connect with nature?

It’s important to acknowledge that it is a human need to connect with nature. I know myself that when I am outdoors, especially near the sea or in my garden, I feel calm and relaxed. There are a range of ways to connect. The obvious ways being walking (which many of us have done a great deal of this past year) and exercising outdoors, and I personally love doing this. It brings a whole different element to exercise. There may be some interests you have that you can take outdoors instead, such as photography, drawing and playing music. The MHF did a study and found that during the pandemic walking outdoors was people’s top coping strategy. They found that 45% of people said green space was vital for their mental health. There are some interesting studies around green space and mindfulness and how connecting with that space has a positive impact, improving mood, reducing stress and allowing us to relax. Check out their website and see how you can get involved. The MHF are asking people to share images, videos or sound recordings of the nature on your doorstep and noting how this made you feel. To get involved on social media make sure you use the hashtags below. Let’s keep the conversations about mental health and wellbeing going.

#connectwithnature #mentalhealthawarenessweek

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