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Positive ways to beat the blues

JANUARY is all about self-betterment. Magazine covers assert "New Year, New You", gym memberships spike sharply and health-food shops are never busier.

We vow to give up smoking, to start taking vitamins, to book in for health NCTs. Anything that will safeguard our physical health and give us a smug glow of self-satisfaction . . . for about a week.

Granted, resolutions rarely last, but our January overhauls at least show an awareness of our physical state of health.

Compare this to the importance we place on safeguarding our mental well-being.

While the stigma surrounding mental illness is gradually easing and society's mental health literacy is growing, we have yet to start minding our minds in the same way that we look after our general well-being.

And it's never been more important. The job losses and pay cuts caused by the recession and the gloom and doom forecasting of the media are having an impact on everyone.

A Samaritans Ireland study from October 2010 reported that the number of calls to the helpline had increased by 13,000 in 12 months.

Mental health support organisation Shine has noted an increase in people with serious mental health problems, which they attribute to the economic climate.

The common misconception is that mental malaises are non-preventable, that they just occur out of the blue.

Not the case. There are almost always warning signs. Often, mental illnesses are the manifestations of traumatic life events or a series of stressful situations.

In the same way that we take echinacea supplements and vitamin C to ward off winter colds, we can maintain our mental well-being by looking at our interpersonal relationships and managing stress levels.

"Giving ourselves a 'mental health boost' can have far-reaching implications for our physical health and sense of well-being," explains psychologist Joanne Cooper.

"How do we know if our psychological or mental health could do with a boost? The answer usually lies in how we are feeling emotionally day to day. "Emotions are like a personal barometer -- they exist to let us know how things are going for us, or if there is anything about our lives we need to change.

"If you find yourself passing through cycles of low mood, anxiety, negativity or stress, then that is usually your body's way of telling you that something needs to change."

There is no shame in monitoring your mental health. Yet, sadly, many consider it a sign of weakness when, if anything, it proves the true strength of a person.

"We want to reclaim the phrase 'mental health' as promoting something positive as opposed to something negative," explains Geoff Day, Director of the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention.

Day was instrumental in the Your Mental Health campaign, which is about promoting positive mental health and encouraging people to seek help when they need it.

While the campaign has been successful -- the website has recorded over 50,000 hits -- he concedes that the subject of mental health is still stigmatised.

"When we first did focus groups around the mental health campaign, we asked people what their understanding was of mental health and most of them talked about mental illness."

Model Alison Canavan has also suffered from depression in the past. Now a first-time mother, she wants to encourage women to speak out about their postnatal depression.

"Up to 90pc of women will experience the baby blues and 10pc will develop full blown post-natal depression," she explains. "I had a terrible time trying to breastfeed. I was completely exhausted and I was also trying to work. There were days when I thought, 'I can't do this' and I remember thinking, 'if this continues, I'm going to have to talk to somebody'.

"We all have bad days but when it gets to the stage where you can't snap yourself out of that, you need to ask for help. Keep an eye on yourself," she advises.

Actress Ashley Judd has also spoken of her struggle with depression, proof that even the brightest and most beautiful can suffer.

How to protect your mental health

Dr Joanne Cooper offers five simple steps that anybody can take to boost and protect their mental health and well-being.

1> Think positive! Our thoughts and emotions are connected, so trying to think in a positive, open-minded and constructive way has a hugely positive effect on how we think and behave. Think good, feel good.

2> Write down all the reasons you have in life to feel thankful: those close to you, positive or learning experiences you have gained, things you own or have achieved, personal qualities you have worked on. Gratitude increases wellbeing.

3> Write a letter to yourself during the good times to help boost yourself through the bad times. Remind yourself of what it's like to feel good, that good times do happen and bad times don't last forever. Advise yourself on how you have handled tough times or difficult people in the past. Remind yourself of what works, and what you are doing that is probably contributing to how well you are feeling.

4> Meditate. Mindfulness Meditation is not hard to learn but brings enormous physical and psychological benefits if practised regularly. Mindfulness is about living in the present and accepting yourself as you are. It teaches you to permit thoughts to come and go without getting too caught up with them or allowing them to fester. It's a great technique for anxiety or worry.

5> Is a hectic work or family life adequately balanced with rest, relaxation and creativity? Hobbies and interests provide a valuable outlet and counterbalance to stress, while laughter has been shown to release endorphins, helping us feel good. For more tips, visit www.yourmentalhealth.ie.

Dr Joanne Cooper is a psychologist specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with young people and adults. Further information available at www.rewindcounselling.ie