Mental illness is very common. One in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance use disorder. Over half of Australians with mental illness do not access any treatment.
Mental illness affects people differently. Some people living with mental illness can manage it rather easily. Others, however – especially those with severe and persistent mental illness – may struggle to manage their illness through most of their lives.
The following activities have been found to promote mental wellbeing.
Writing is a great vehicle for our thoughts and provides an effective way of processing our feelings. Writing poetry is beneficial in maintaining healthy mental wellness.
Poetry is versatile and all-inclusive. It is not restricted by form and allows the poet to write about their feelings in many ways, be it abstract or literal. It is also a way of ‘being in the world,’ a world that may appear uninviting and hostile.
In answer to the question ‘What is poetry?’ Mark Flanagan says,
“Poetry is the chiselled marble of language; it’s a paint-spattered canvas – but the poet uses words instead of paint, and the canvas is you.”
Lemn Sissay is one of the UK’s best known public poets. He spoke at the recent Bendigo Writers Festival 2018.
Sissay was raised in a white foster family in Wigan on the outskirts of Manchester. When he was 12, he was sent to live in a children’s home. Throughout his teenage years, he was subject to psychological and physical abuse, eventually ending up in a remand centre, though he had committed no crime, where he tried to make sense of things. His route out was poetry. He says,
“Poetry is the voice at the back of the mind.”
Poetry has allowed Sissay to ‘open up all the dark places that have been closed.’
The poem Inspire and Be Inspired contains the lines
Open all doors.
Open all senses.
Open all defences.
Ask, what were these closed for?
Gardening is good for your mental health. Studies show that gardening promotes mental health by improving endurance and strength, reducing stress levels and promoting relaxation. It can also provide stimulation and interest in the outdoors. Just being in the garden can create a sense of well-being.
Fieldhouse (2003) found gardening with others has two key benefits: the first involves cognitive benefits of enhanced mood, reduced arousal and improved concentration; the second is the social nature of the group – the need to cooperate with each other to achieve the end goal.
Gardening keeps you grounded. It’s a peaceful experience and can help establish a better sense of purpose as you watch your efforts come to fruition.
The Arizona Addiction Treatment Centre adopts a holistic approach in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. They have found Gardening Therapy to be beneficial in recovery and creating healthier lifestyle options.
“There are many reasons to conclude that gardening may be therapeutic – there is evidence for physical, cognitive and social benefits. But, there may be something in gardening associated with providing hope for those who may have little else to hope for. This might be the most beneficial aspect of gardening therapy.”
Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and a pioneer of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. He is the co-founder and director of Sole Food Street Farms, one of North America’s largest urban agriculture enterprises established to provide employment to individuals in Vancouver, British Columbia who are managing poverty and addiction. He was a speaker at the recent Bendigo Writers Festival 2018.
Ableman is realistic about his efforts to transform urban slums and to help these communities grow. He says,
“We sometimes encounter the reality that people are no easier to recover than the land buried under layers of pavement. Ours remains an imperfect endeavour.”
Nonetheless, Ableman’s focus is on renewing urban wastelands and restoring the dignity of the people who live there. He says,
“I know that we all need to eat and that we all need something to do each day that connects us to each other and to the broader world around us. If growing fruits and vegetables at Sole Food Street Farms could provide neighbourhood men and women with a constant, rock-solid, always-there, grounded-in-the-ground place to return to, then we would accomplish a great deal. Producing excellent quality food for the community, and creating a lush, green, multidimensional break from so much pavement, is a bonus.”
Ableman has gained insight into the people in his employment, people who had never grown anything before. Ableman found that despite their desperate lives they were open to wonder and exhibited great tenderness. Ableman shares the story of Kenny, the first person to be employed. He says,
“I came to this work with my own package of pre-conceptions and judgments. When I met Kenny, my first impression of him fit every stereotype about drug addicts and what they look like. Sporting a wispy, slightly greying goatee, and wearing multiple chains around his neck, he was desperately thin, hollow-eyed, with a shaved head and a fast-talking skittishness that reeked of crack or speed.
I came to learn that, for someone who has been through hell and has had so much bad-assed shit happen in his life, Kenny is a real softie inside. When ladybugs show up on the produce while it is being washed and prepared for sale Kenny will go to great lengths to save every last one from drowning.”
A good book will transport you into the mind of another. It will allow you to see your world differently, or more deeply.
Research conducted in 2009 at the University of Sussex showed that reading was the most effective way to overcome stress, beating out old favourites such as listening to music, enjoying a cup of tea or coffee and even taking a walk.
Study researcher Dr David Lewis says,
“It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”
Reading helps you chill out. In stressful times reading can be an avenue to retreat and reflect on your thoughts.
Reading can transport you away from tedium and sorrow. Writing for the New York Times Annie Murphy Paul says,
“Stories stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”
Novelist and essayist, Matt Haig is a British writer whose book Reasons to Stay Alive was a UK bestseller. He was a speaker at the recent Bendigo Writers Festival 2018. He says,
“Books were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself.”
During his mid 20’s Haig struggled with depression and anxiety. He found himself back living at his parent’s house. The only books he had were the children’s books on his bedroom shelf. He found himself reading Winnie-the-Pooh over and over again, just for the comfort of knowing the story. He says,
“There was something so therapeutic about it. I found I wanted an actual story – I wanted a beginning, a middle, and an end – because that’s what was nourishing me.”
Good books provide us with relief and solace. As Thomas Kempis says,
“Everywhere I have sought peace and not found it, except in a corner with a book.”