Professor Jo Smith shares her experience of talking on wellbeing and emotional resilience at this year’s Hay Festival.
Since 2002, we have been encouraged by the Government to consume ‘5 a day’ to create and sustain healthy eating habits and this has now, 14 years later, become part of our everyday language and a metric we use for a physically healthy life. In 2008, the Government published the Foresight report on ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’, which offered a similar guide of 5 daily tasks to help us look after our mental health and wellbeing. One key problem for Public Health is getting this message to the general public to get it similarly embedded and implemented in daily life.
I am a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Worcester. I am also the Lead on a Suicide Safer Project working in partnership with colleagues from the University to improve the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff as well as with local Health and Local Authority Public Health partners to contribute to a ‘suicide safer’ university, city and county through a range of wellbeing initiatives. On Tuesday, May 31st, 2016, I was given the opportunity to talk to a lay audience of over 900 members of the general public on the Telegraph Stage at the world renowned Hay Festival . The talk was one of a series of 4 talks sponsored by the University of Worcester to mark its 70th anniversary and, as a public lecture, provided an opportunity to raise public awareness about the importance of building and maintaining positive mental health to protect against low mood and other factors that may potentially, if left untreated, contribute to mental ill health and, ultimately, suicide risk.
My talk entitled ‘The Shape we are in: Building Good mental and Emotional Health’ invited
prospective attendees, in the context of a hyper accelerated 21st century culture which can present many challenges for wellbeing, to explore positive strategies for handling life’s challenges based on the 5 ways to wellbeing and to develop coping strategies to build emotional resilience for dealing with negative times in our lives.
The essence of my talk was that being mentally or emotionally healthy is much more than being free of anxiety, depression or any other mental health problem but refers instead to feeling good, functioning well and a positive evaluation of life or aspects of it where people who are emotionally healthy are equipped to handle life’s challenges and are protected by strong supportive relationships and can draw on good personal resources and coping skills to adapt or bounce back from setbacks and difficulties in life. This doesn’t just happen but requires us to actively develop strategies in our lives to improve our emotional health, boost mood, build coping resilience and do things that contribute to overall life enjoyment and satisfaction. This includes engaging in the ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ on a daily basis as well as taking care of physical health, diet and sleep and building protective factors like strong supportive relationships, a balanced lifestyle that feeds mood and satisfaction with time off to wind down and a repertoire of stress and mood management coping skills such as relaxation, mindfulness, positive monitoring, self compassion to manage difficulties and reduce stress.
What are the 5 ways to wellbeing?
5 different core components of wellbeing are described as important:
- The first recommendation is to ‘Connect’ with people around you, family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, social activities in your local community. Investing time in developing and building connections and being part of a social community relating to and with others is important for wellbeing and personal support.
- ‘Learn’ something new , rediscover an old interest, set a personal challenge, siggn up for a course, take on anew responsibility at work or home to build confidence and satisfaction and to keep our minds stimulated and active is the second recommendation .
- The third recommendation is to ‘Be active’. We know exercise releases endorphins that positively influence mood. It is not only sport and exercise that has this effect , moving and doing something you enjoy will have the same outcomes whether it be playing a game, drama , dance, gardening, walking or just getting out and about in your locality. Exercise in its many forms helps us to feel good as well as improving mental wellbeing.
- The fourth injunction is to ‘Take notice’ to be curious, aware of the world around you and how you are feeling, savouring the moment, being mindful by taking time from doing to ‘being’ to sit, to notice and appreciate what is around you, to reflect, meditate, appreciate nature and everyday moments and experiences in our lives. Taking notice is also associated with mental wellbeing.
- The final piece of advice is to ‘Give to others’ unconditionally by looking outwards to those around us through doing voluntary work, philanthropy, small acts of kindness, acknowledging and helping others which can be rewarding, build confidence and satisfaction as well as building connections with people around us.
So are the 5 ways to wellbeing sufficient to achieving wellbeing and good mental health?
They will go a long way towards achieving a mentally healthy lifestyle but, as with physical health, it is also determined by our personal vulnerability to poor mental health influenced by a multitude of contributory risk factors including our gender and socioeconomic status as well as factors from birth and growing up such as inherited genetic risk for mental health difficulties, childhood experiences of parental discord, divorce and loss, bullying, trauma as well as issues in our current lives including living in social isolation, poverty and unemployment. The greater the number and the more severe the risk factors, the greater the likelihood of later mental health problems in adolescence/adulthood. That said, some people appear to be more resilient and against all odds survive and grow up as coping competent adults in spite of difficult growing up experiences which has led to a second strand of work where an important key to promoting wellbeing and mental health is understanding protective factors that enable us to be resilient (Mental Health Foundation, 1999, p9). This is where emotional resilience alongside 5 ways to wellbeing becomes important in terms of understanding protective factors that enable us to confront and cope with life’s challenges and to maintain wellbeing in the face of adversity and to bounce back when something difficult happens in life.
There are a number of key things that help to build emotional resilience:
- Activities that promote wellbeing including attention to physical health, healthy diet and sufficient sleep as well as lifestyle balance doing things you enjoy that feed mood and confidence while also taking time off and giving yourself a break.
- Social connectedness including building social contacts, making time for social activities, keeping connected and not withdrawing or isolating yourself, instead, talking to others about how you are feeling and enlisting their support and help with problem solving and to keep things in perspective when you face difficult times, as well as seeking professional specialist support if problems persist.
- Psychological coping strategies and skills for maintaining mood and confidence including ‘feeding mood’ with things you enjoy and which give you pleasure, positive monitoring of your successes, treating and rewarding self for small achievements, encouraging self compassion as well as stress management skills including relaxation, mindfulness, problem solving to manage difficulties and reduce stress during times of challenge.
There are a number of useful websites which provide free tools and advice about how to manage difficulties and reduce stress:
- Psychology tools: free information booklets about a range of problems including self management coping tools and advice.
- GetSelfHelp: free downloadable self-help information leaflets.
- MindEd for families: provides materials for parents and carers of children and teenagers struggling with mental health issues.
- Be Mindful for guidance on mindfulness and how to find a mindfulness course.
This awareness of the need to build emotional resilience is now influencing the school’s curriculum to build emotionally resilient youngsters as an early inoculation to protect wellbeing throughout our lives.
Following the talk, I was humbled by the large number of emails I received in response from wellbeing leads in schools and other work places, teachers, counsellors, concerned parents and members of the general public telling me what they were up to locally/personally in terms of raising awareness about the importance of active efforts to promote wellbeing and build emotional resilience, thanking me for the guidance provided in my talk or looking for solutions to wellbeing related concerns.
“I sit in a deck chair in the sunshine, drinking my decaf mocha and reflecting on your talk with my husband; exactly as you suggested in your inspiring presentation…At least we know we are already on the right track in developing practices to support our mental health wellbeing and resilience!”
“The session was great and helped me in a number of ways: through my roles at work (Champion of Wellbeing), being the parent of a son who has just completed his first year at Uni and a daughter doing A Levels; as a sister of a sibling who is struggling; as the daughter of an elderly parent and finally as an individual who is considering retiring from the corporate world and searching for ‘what’s next’.
“Thank you for a fantastic talk at Hay yesterday. I loved your five a day for mental health and will try to fit that into everyday life.”
Clearly, the talk had struck a chord with audience members who were hungry and receptive to know more and take the ideas forward. We need to find ways to promote key wellbeing and emotional resilience messages in the general public so that the ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ become as much part of the vernacular as the traditional ‘5 a day’ we have learnt to consume and use as our metric for healthy living!
Professor Jo Smith is Professor in Clinical Psychology and Suicide Safer Project Lead in the Institute of Health and Society at University of Worcester. She is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and was the Early Intervention in Psychosis (EIP) Lead for Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, Worcester (1999-2015). Jo was formerly a Joint National EIP Programme Lead for England with the National Institute for Mental Health in England (NIMHE: 2004-2010). She has a particular interest in earlier intervention to prevent later mental health difficulties which includes an interest in youth mental health, suicide prevention and early intervention for serious mental health difficulties.