Mental Health is on everyone’s lips. There are countless news articles about mental health every year – in fact over the course of a typical day, there are more articles published about mental health than there are about other hot topics like AI, the risk of a recession, and even Taylor Swift!
With 44% of Australian adults having experienced a mental disorder over the course of their lives, and 1 in 5 having experienced symptoms of a mental disorder over the last 12 months, it’s no surprise that Google searches for mental health queries reached an all-time high in 2021 .
Additionally, across Australia there are 102 days dedicated every year to raising awareness of important mental health and wellbeing related topics , including Neurodiversity Week in March, World Infant, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Day in May, and R U OK? Day in September. A growing number of Australian states and territories are also promoting Mental Health Month in October, to align with World Mental Health Day.
With all the talk about mental health and wellbeing, it’s valuable to understand that how we describe mental health. First off, if someone is dealing with issues like depression and anxiety, we don’t say that they are having time off because they’re struggling with ‘mental health’. We describe them as having a ‘mental illness’! And that’s because mental health and mental illness are two different things. They actually exist on two different lines. Here's what I mean:
In the diagram above (which we call the dual continuum of mental wellbeing ), we see two axes. On one axis, we have mental illness.
Low mental illness means you aren’t experiencing symptoms of mental illness (such as depression and anxiety), high mental illness means you are.
And on the other axis is mental health. If you have high mental health, you have a generally positive mood and outlook on life and are functionally optimally. You are said to be ‘flourishing’. On the other hand, if you have low mental health, you may feel hollow or empty, and have a generally low mood. You are said to be ‘languishing’.
For most people experiencing mental illness, interventions such as therapy and medications are both valuable and necessary. However, anyone – including those with a diagnosed mental illness – can take simple steps to improve mental health and lead a flourishing life. And the good news is that these steps are simple, effective, and free.
Let me ask you a question.
What makes life most worth living for you?
The simplest way to experience improved mental health and wellbeing is to identify the answer to that question and then find a way to do a little more of those things each day. Yet if you’re having a hard time figuring out what that looks like in reality, let me outline a few things science points us to that can help:
This might be the most boring thing I can put on the list of ideas to bolster wellbeing (for you and your kids). But it might also be the most valuable item on the list.
Have you noticed what a difference it makes when you feel well rested? Have you noticed how much better you behave (not to mention the kids) when you’ve had a full night’s sleep? Yet for many of us, sleep is the first thing to be sacrificed when life starts to get busy. We consistently rank work, entertainment, and socialising above sleep in our priorities, and as a consequence close to half of Australian adults report suboptimal sleep .
Interestingly, scientists don’t have a solid answer for why we need to sleep. We do know that it is a biological imperative, given that all animals and even some plants sleep. Some animals (like dolphins who sleep with one half of their brains at a time and migratory birds who sleep while gliding) have even evolved extreme adaptations to enable them to get enough sleep. Given the increased dangers that come to all animals when unconscious of their environment, it follows that the benefits of sleep must outweigh the risks.
While science can’t tell us why we need sleep, it can tell us how much we need, and what happens when we don’t get enough. Young children need about 11 hours sleep , and that drops to 8 hours by the time they reach 17 years old. Adults do best with about 7 hours sleep a night, although everyone has varying sleep needs. As for what happens when we don’t get enough, we can look at a toddler up past nap time to see the consequences – negative mood, reduced emotional regulation , and increased risk of accidents . On the other hand, improving sleep quality improves mental health , including reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Sleep makes you a better parent. It makes you a better partner, employee… it makes you a better person. Prioritising a solid 8 hours of sleep per night is just about the best thing you can do to be happier.
Sleep hygiene matters , so try the following to optimise your sleep:
- Try to go to sleep at the same time each night (within 30 minutes), and wake up around the same time every morning (even on weekends),
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine, including minimising screen use in the hour before sleep,
- Establish sleep supporting daytime habits, such as engaging in physical activity and getting enough sunlight,
- And optimise your sleep space, by making sure the room is around 18°C, as dark as possible, and as quiet as you can.
2. Build Connection
Relationships are at the core of our wellbeing. In fact, having poor social relationships carries similar risks to mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes daily and excessive alcohol consumption. Having a sense of connection or relatedness with others happens when we feel seen, heard, and valued. Not only is connection considered one of our basic psychological needs, having our own need for connection met predicts relationship functioning and wellbeing. In fact, an 80 year study of human flourishing found that there was a strong correlation between relationship satisfaction and happiness. In essence, people with strong relationships live longer, are happier, and have better health.
You can boost your wellbeing by finding ways that you and your children can connect with one another and with others regularly in healthy, positive ways. The following might help to build stronger feelings of belonging:
- Smile at one another more. Even fake smiles can amplify and initiate feelings of happiness due to the effect of the facial feedback hypothesis. Smiling helps us to feel happy, both when we give them and receive them, and much like yawns, they are also contagious. In fact, Fredrickson’s Positive Resonance Theory suggests that high quality connections form when we share a moment of positive emotion with someone we care for, in such a way that our behaviour is sync – such as by sharing a smile together.
- Express words of affirmation. Saying nice things feels good! Expressing gratitude has well-documented impacts on wellbeing . Say “I love you”, “I’m grateful to have you in my life”, and “I love spending time with you”.
- Slow down and spend time together. To a child LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E. Additionally, it’s practically impossible to do other relationship building activities if you don’t have enough time together.
3. Get Active
A recent study from the University of South Australia found that exercise is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or the leading medications at improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress. Physical activity also keeps our brains healthy, increases positive mood and increases self-esteem , as well as reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and increasing bone health . The World Health Organisation recommends that children and adults aim for about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity daily, but if you’re just starting out, replacing sedentary time with physical activity of any intensity will offer health benefits. Here are some simple swaps you can do to increase your levels of physical activity and get active:
- Walk instead of drive. Or if you have a bit further to go, ride your bike. It might require leaving a bit earlier, but combining your commute with exercise is an effective way of maximising your time.
- Have a family dance party instead of a family movie night. On top of the benefits of physical activity, dancing also has emotional and cognitive benefits .
- Play ball games instead of board games. Next time a lazy afternoon opens up for you, don’t out the board games and puzzles, grab a ball and head outside instead. And if you can get other kids and parents involved for an informal game, you’ll also be creating opportunities for the development of other skills such as perspective taking, conflict resolution, and sportsmanship.
4. Slow Down and Smell the Roses
Nature is fuel for the soul. Spending time interacting with nature has a long list of benefits , including: improved academic and task performance, improved productivity, stress reduction, increased social interaction, reduced violence, increased social cohesion and support, increased inspiration, and improved mood. Researchers say that you need at least 120 minutes a week spent in nature to get the best benefits, however it doesn’t seem to matter if this threshold is reached in many short trips to the local park or in one big weekend outing.
One of the best benefits of being outside in nature is that it forces us to slow down and enjoy the moment. To boost your time in nature, try these:
- Eat a meal outside. Even taking just 10 minutes outside while you eat a snack can be enough to increase relaxation and lower your heart rate.
- Walk the long way home. Being outside is good, but being in nature is even better. Instead of walking along your normal route, try detouring through your local nature reserve. Pause to listen to the birds, notice the seasonal changes in the trees, and smell the flowers.
- Spend your weekend getting out into nature. It could be a trip to the beach, a hike in the mountains, or sitting around a campfire in the bush.
5. Have Fun
It’s all well and good to say get enough sleep, spend time together, get active, and go outside. But the thing is, families are busy! And with the economic pressures that many of us are under, things can feel even harder than what we’re used to. However, this last tip – having fun – can help us build connection, boost our physical activity, and take us outside, all at the same time. How’s that for multitasking! Playing and having fun also stimulates the release of “feel-good” hormones , such as endorphins, in the brain. To build fun times into your family’s culture, try:
- Having a once-per-week adventure. Two hours of low-cost or no-cost time that’s about exploration. Quality time? Check. Physical activity? Check. Getting into nature? Check. Fun? Hopefully.
- Family traditions. Anything from a daily routine of taking snack time outside to an annual Christmas backyard cricket tournament. By turning these fun moment into a tradition, we get to enjoy them in the moment and also experience positive feelings of excitement and anticipation as we look forward to these events.
- Spontaneous adventures. Is there anything more fun than spontaneously pulling the kids out of school for the day to take advantage of empty beaches?
On the road to flourishing
Work, school, homework, cleaning the house, finances… these are all important things, but they’re not the things that make life worth living. If we want to get on the road to flourishing, we may need to re-prioritise our time, making sure that we build in opportunities for sleep, connection, movement, nature, and fun. Fortunately, mental health boosting initiatives don’t need to be huge, time-consuming commitments. Often, simple swaps are all it takes to bring greater positivity into your life.