Active mental health

We all understand the relationships between physical activity and wellbeing. As Sheffield Hallam’s Steve Haake, Director of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, puts it, it comes down to a simple proposition about more people moving more, more often. But physical wellbeing is also intimately connected with mental wellbeing.

Thursday 2 March is University Mental Health Day (UMHD). Around the country, is it is an opportunity to promote the mental health of all those who study and work in higher education. The University and Students’ Union have been collaborating on planning a range of activities across the University: you can find out more about the events planned for the day here . The Students’ Union is also running a mental health campaign called ‘Mind Your Head’, which is an awareness campaign touching on issues such as mental health in sport, amongst postgraduate students, and LGBT+ mental health. As well as our own activities to mark UMHD, the University is also supporting the UK’s student mental health charity, Student Minds, by donating £3 for every student who completes the National Student Survey to the charity.

Both Mental Health Day and ‘Mind Your Head’ are ways of focusing attention on wellbeing: they share an approach that mental health and wellbeing are not simply issues for those experiencing difficulties – important though it is to raise awareness of the different forms such difficulties can take – but an issue for all of us. We all have mental health just as we all have physical health and our mental health will fluctuate over time: I have a friend who self-monitors his state of mind during the day by scoring it every hour out of ten; if I call and begin the conversation by asking him how he is, he is likely to answer ‘six’ or ‘four’. It’s a self-management device which works for him. Because mental health exists on a continuum, we can all be aware of the continuum and can promote good wellbeing with small steps in our day-to-day life. But mental health is also part of broader physical health. It is a theme of Mental Health Day that keeping physically active is one way in which we can manage mental health – and there is good evidence that this works at any age, and that isolated elderly people who maintain physical activity generally enjoy better mental health.

The theme of our Mental Health Day this year is ‘Active Mental Health’ – which is itself an [active] reminder that we should be concerned with maintaining and sustaining mental health and not solely with addressing mental distress. Life’s invariably busy; the demands on our time, effort and energy, whether as members of staff or as students, all too easily crowd out attention to our own wellbeing – whatever happened to my bold new year intention to get a lot fitter more regularly? So this is as good an opportunity as any to reinforce the benefits of the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ which the University has adopted. They are set out in fuller detail on the Mind website. They are: connect, be active, take notice, learn and give.

Active mental health

Some of our students who have adopted the five ways to wellbeing under our Healthy Hallam initiative.

‘Connect’ is a reminder that social relationships are critical for promoting wellbeing and insulate against mental ill-health. Mind set this out practically, urging us to connect actively – talking to people instead of sending an email, putting aside a few minutes to find out how someone really is. ‘Be active’ is a reminder that regular exercise is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety, and can be as simple as finding time to take a walk at lunchtime. ‘Take notice’ is a reminder that looking around you and savouring the moment often enables you to set your own experiences in a wider context. ‘Learn’ is a good headline for any university; continued learning enhances self-esteem, but it’s so easy, in a big and complicated organisation like this University, not to notice what learning is going on, so it can be as simple as finding out something about your colleagues – I tend to make a nuisance of myself around the University simply by asking staff and students to tell me what they do. The answers are always interesting. And, finally, ’give’ encourages us to participate in social and community life.

In recent months, issues of poor mental health in universities have been in the news. The private University of Buckingham attracted attention by signing up as Europe’s first ‘positive university’, making a series of extensive commitments about positive psychology.   I think the approach they have committed to is over-engineered and does not really align with the way a university works – but they are a small, focused institution. The key is to take mental wellbeing – of ourselves, of others – seriously and the five ways to wellbeing, whilst not covering every eventuality, take us a long way.

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