Even though intentions are largely good, the barrage of wellbeing advice that flings itself at us from every direction online and in media can be utterly overwhelming.
It can feel like a relentless merry-go-round; juggling life, feeling frazzled, googling tips, then getting even more anxious than when you started because you’re not practicing yoga every day, reciting your mantras, or looking after your gut-to-brain connection.
The fact is, trying to look after your mental health can sometimes be bad for mental health.
Perhaps that is a controversial view, but I know because it happened to me.
When I first started working in mental health back in 2013, the term was virtually unspoken as people muttered it in whispers and it was still heavily shrouded in stigma.
Fast-forward to today, and we have pogoed to the opposite end of the spectrum, where our thirst for wellness is packaged in a way that leaves us feeling inadequate if we’re not doing anything and everything from skincare routines to sound baths to practicing mindfulness.
Yet often these become barriers to the very thing we are trying to seek, whether because we don’t have time to do them, they are too pricey, or they simply don’t resonate with us.
Immersed in this world, I completely shut down from it. I stopped seeing my therapist, quit social media, and began hating wellbeing advice as it felt like I couldn’t escape from thinking about my mental health. It was constant. The self-doubt shifted from ‘Am I enough?’ to ‘Am I doing enough?’
At Self-Esteem Team – an organisation that delivers school workshops nationwide – this is exactly what we try to chip away at, to show that mental health is not something to be ‘cured’ with a quick-fix, but something that is yours to own and, ultimately, have fun with.
The terms ‘mental health’ and ‘fun’ rarely go hand-in-hand, but when my eyes opened to seeing they are actually a match made in heaven, my zest for life dramatically transformed.
So, here are five top tips to get you started.
1) Silent Disco
Unless you happen to have a sporty child, the word ‘exercise’ will make many young people run (ironically) in the opposite direction. And to be fair, us adults too.
So, how do we move without it feeling like we’re divorcing our beloved sofa?!
Rather than sweat on a treadmill to nowhere, hit the garden/park/street with your mobiles and a set of headphones each for a silent disco.
Not only are you boosting your child’s sense of identity by allowing them to sing and dance to the music they love, but there is also huge freedom to letting go in public.
This can significantly reduce social anxiety and the discomfort of ‘being looked at’, paving the stepping-stones of confidence especially for public speaking or raising hands in class.
Singing or even shouting lyrics can also release chemicals – endorphins, serotonin and dopamine – that boost mood and literally make you feel good about yourself.
2) Normalise helplines
Think back to when you were a teen, to that thing you did that you didn’t want anyone else to find out about. Who did you turn to? Mum? Dad? A friend? No one?
As much as every parent hopes their child will go to them about a problem, the reality is different.
Whether through judgement, fear, shame, guilt, or simply not having the words, young people have a tendency to keep things inside until often it is too late.
By normalising helplines, even before problems start to present, you are awakening endless possibilities that accessing support does not have to be like climbing Everest.
We teach kids how to dial 999 and give CPR in First Aid lessons, so complete the emergency trilogy and save the Samaritans, Childline or Papyrus in their phone now (ideally with the opening hours saved too) and have a conversation about why you are doing it today.
3) Mood Diary
Typically, when it comes to writing feelings down, we are all encouraged to journal. Not that this is poor guidance per se, but it forces us to be alone with emotions rather than share.
Consequently, this can push someone further down the rabbit hole into despair, without having anyone to talk to about their issues as they get locked into the pages instead.
However, if we journal together as a family, we are opening up a conversation that externalising internal thoughts is not only normal but also very welcomed.
Mood diaries do not have to be line upon line of text, instead think about creating a chart that is posted to the fridge month-by-month, with a column for each person’s name.
Between you, you can decide what your currency will be, whether it’s numbers 1 to 10, perhaps you buy some emoji stickers, or even draw a thumbs up or down yourselves.
Whatever you choose as your communication method, everyone is then committed to fill in their number/sticker/thumb on the chart of how they are feeling each day.
This builds space to see how your child is doing without putting all the pressure on them to open up, as all the family are getting involved so it becomes an exercise in togetherness.
Similarly, it creates an environment where you don’t have to have an intense discussion each time someone puts a sad-face emoji or thumbs down, it is simply to help young people express themselves and invite others onto their wavelength; while the act of everyone getting involved shows parents and siblings are a non-judgemental ear if someone wants to talk to them.
4) Rainbow food
Technically, this could be considered a physical health rather than mental health strategy, although now that we know the two are intrinsically linked, what we eat benefits both.
As a self-confessed takeaway addict, healthy food has often been a big struggle for me. I would often bat it away as ‘boring’ or ‘you only live once, eat what makes you happy’.
I also think terms like ‘clean eating’ are really problematic and polarise people, not to mention the fact celebrities and influencers normalise cutting out entire food groups.
It was only when I started to notice how sluggish my love-affair with fast-food was making me that I began to look for ways I could make tweaks without feeling I was depriving myself.
Now, rather than obsessing about what calories I’ve consumed in any given day, I focus on what I haven’t had and this has broadened my mind into a ‘nourish not punish’ mentality – so, if I haven’t had a strong amount of carbs by 4pm, I’ll make sure my dinner is rich in them.
This also doesn’t demonise takeaways and I still allow myself them, though by shifting the attention onto what I haven’t had rather than what I have had, it naturally means I order less.
I also focus on having a rainbow plate, which as the name suggests, is a dish brimming with colourful fruits and veg as this way you can meet the nutritional demands your body needs.
It also shifts the spotlight from ‘eating your greens’, which unless you’re made of stone, all of us can relate to what that was like as a kid.
By getting creative with the deep purple of beetroot, the rich pink of pomegranate seeds, the secret orange filling of a passionfruit, or the dotty insides of a dragon fruit, you can make mealtimes imaginative with colours and tastes that excite as well as nurture.
5) Write a letter to yourself
Celebrities often get asked in interviews, ‘What advice would you give your younger self?’ though rarely do we ask people, ‘What advice would you give your adult self?’
By asking your child to write themselves a letter to their future self, it can help them to see outside of their here-and-now (which is notoriously hard) and through an alternate lens.
You can also encourage them to write letters from their future self to their current self, giving themselves advice so it feels less preachy than it coming from an adult or teacher.
It can be helpful to write letters to abstract forces too, such as ‘Dear Depression’ or ‘Dear Anxiety’, as this can separate kids from their mental health to remind them they are more than their issues.
Whatever road you go down, remember to think outside the box, because really there is no box when it comes to the unique ways you can look after mental health.
For more info, click here: The Self-Esteem Team.