Mental health and wellbeing must be valued in society
On average, people in Ireland have good mental health and wellbeing. That's what the national health survey found when it asked adults questions such as how much they felt 'full of life', were 'calm and peaceful', 'had lots of energy', and had been a 'happy person' in the previous month.
And when asked about difficulties like feeling 'downhearted and blue' or being a 'very nervous person', only one in 10 adults were found to have a likely mental health problem. This is good news and shows that, despite the stresses of recent years, many people are coping well.
Averages don't tell the full story, however. Some people are more at risk of poor mental health than others. For example, while 19pc of men were found to have the best possible mental health, only 12pc of women said the same. People living in a deprived area had worse mental health, with 13pc reporting signs of a mental health difficulty, while only 5pc of people living in a non-deprived area had a difficulty.
The differences between those who have good mental health and those who do not can help us to understand how we can foster everyone's mental health and wellbeing.
For instance, more people on low incomes have a mental health difficulty. In 2012, three-quarters of people experiencing severe financial strain had personal experience of a mental health difficulty, either themselves or through others. Reducing the number of people living in poverty or under financial strain is one way to improve Ireland's overall mental health. Imagine how many lives might have been better if the mental health impact of budget decisions had been uppermost in the minds of the Government in recent years.
Providing people with a secure home is another way of supporting positive mental health. International evidence points to a link between unstable housing and poor mental health. So another positive step that we could take as a society would be to value housing for how it contributes to mental health - to see a house not as a measure of wealth or success, not as an investment, but as a home and a basis for our wellbeing. The Government could contribute to such a society by ensuring that everyone has a safe, secure home and providing support for people who need help to access housing.
Having a decent job is another way of promoting wellbeing. Unemployment itself is not good for one's mental health, but equally bad, it turns out, is having a low-paying job that is frustrating, in which one has little control.
Recent research in Australia has shown that the quality of a job in terms of control, demands, insecurity and pay fairness influences the mental health of the employee. In fact, moving from unemployment into a dissatisfying job did more harm than good to the person's mental health. If we care about the mental health of people who are unemployed, it will be important not to force them into insecure, frustrating, low-paying jobs which will make their mental health worse.
So, there is much that we as a society can do. We can value the role that having a secure income, a home and a satisfying job plays in everyone's mental health. We can recognise that prioritising these areas, not just for ourselves but for each other, can contribute to an Ireland where everyone enjoys good mental health and wellbeing.
We can also make individual choices that contribute to feeling better emotionally and build our resilience against life's challenges. The #littlethings campaign run by the HSE is a good starting point for learning about these actions that we can take as individuals. Things like maintaining our connections with family and friends, getting enough sleep, eating healthily and getting regular exercise are all proven to contribute to better mental health. Finding opportunities to be creative and fostering one's spirituality can also help.
Experts have started talking about a 'five-a-day' for mental health similar to the well-known five-a-day for physical health, encouraging us to 'connect' (with people), be 'active', 'learn' new skills, 'give' to others and be 'mindful' of the present moment each day. These steps should give us a better sense of wellbeing. And yet, there are some contributors to mental health that only we as a collective can sort out. We have been through a tough time. Perhaps we should make mental health and wellbeing the priority for the country's recovery over the next five years.
Shari McDaid is director of Mental Health Reform (www.mentalhealthreform.ie), a coalition of 54 member organisations promoting improved mental health services and the social inclusion of people with mental health difficulties. Mental Health Reform aims to help people with mental health difficulties to recover their wellbeing and live a full life in their community.