Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Each year a different theme is chosen and this year the Mental Health Foundation have chosen physical activity. Their website says that “This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week aims to shift our motivation for physical activity to something we choose to do to increase our wellbeing”.

This makes sense, as it has become conventional thinking in recent years that exercise and other physical activity can increase the production of endorphins in the brain. And of course exercise doesn’t necessarily mean a 5 mile run – as this helpful page from the MHF website explains physical activity can include housework, gardening, going for a walk etc.

Unfortunately this theme for the week doesn’t seem to have been properly thought through. For a start the message being promoted through social media already seems to have shifted from ‘choosing to do physical activity to increase wellbeing’ to ‘exercise will help your mental health problems’. The Twitter hashtag #letsgetphysical is being used to enthuse about the benefits of gym visits rather than gardening. This isn’t the fault of the MHF of course, but it could have been foreseen and it isn’t helped by the MHF’s use of the the quote “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keep the mind in vigor” (Marcus Tullius Cicero) in their leaflet about physical activity.

Another problem with having physical activity as the week’s theme is that there are many people who have both mental illness and physical disabilities. Whilst a lot of these people will be able to undertake some form of physical activity there will be a significant number who can’t. And what of those whose mental illness is severe enough that they struggle to get out of bed, let alone go for a walk? As I understand it the idea that physical activity can help mental health only seems to apply to relatively mild conditions.

In fact, increased physical activity can actually have a detrimental effect on some people with mental illnesses. Those with ‘invisible’ disabilities such as CFS and fibromyalgia may well find that increased physical activity increases their fatigue which could put them at greater risk of depression. Speaking as someone who struggles to walk for more than a few minutes and at times finds it impossible to do any kind of housework, being repeatedly told that I need to increase my levels of activity is unhelpful as it makes me reflect on my increasing loss of mobility and lowers my mood. Those who suffer from eating disorders may also find this advice counter-productive, if not downright dangerous.

Some have already complained that this focus on physical activity as a kind of panacea for mental illness is almost akin to victim-blaming. There are already tweets under the #letsgetphysical hashtag asking why, if exercise is so good for mental health, sufferers wouldn’t get off their backsides and just do it? (Note again the confusion between exercise and physical activity). The implication seems to be that those who aren’t out pounding the pavements in order to beat their mental illness obviously don’t want to get better. This is damaging.

The final problem I want to discuss is that for some people exercise and other physical activity simply isn’t that effective. Some years ago I was enrolled in an ‘exercise prescription’ programme where I was able to use a local gym and go to classes for a pound a time. It was good and I enjoyed it – but it did nothing to help my crippling depression. For me, medication and a great support network are the most effective form of treatment and I know I’m not alone.

I’m not saying that the MHF shouldn’t have chosen this as their theme for Mental Health Awareness Week; it’s obviously quite successful in getting people talking and I’m sure there are many who will be helped by the message. However those who cannot partake in physical activity and those for whom it is a risky or ineffective treatment are being ignored and excluded by the very organisations that are supposed to support them.

Oh and one last thing. The #letsgetphysical hashtag means that I’ve been humming Olivia Newton-John for the last 36 hours. Not cool, MHF. Not cool.

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Comments on: "Is this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week a bit of an own goal?" (10)

  1. This is a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Since having my son prematurely I have really struggled with anxiety and depression. I also started running (if you saw me you’d see I’m not a natural runner) to raise money for prem babies. My son’s physical health and my mental health meant training was very hard but I managed it and saw some benefits (mostly time our of the house and on my own). I can see how exercise might help some with mental health problems, but not all. And my mental health problems and my running were unhealthily connected. I mainly ran to raise money. But increasingly I felt selfconsciously that if I completed a half marathon maybe he would be OK. You’ll think I’m mad now. But after the high of completing the half marathon I crashed mentally big time. Nothing had changed. Running had been a great distraction and I’d lost a lot of weight. But it altered nothing.

    • I think you’re amazing. Your son is very lucky to have you (as is your daughter of course). And time alone and out of the house can be just as valuable as other ways of tackling mental illness, as I’m sure you know.

      Are you seeing anyone about your depression and anxiety?

      • Thank yo for your kind words! It means a lot. I don’t feel amazing, I feel like I’m muddling through and making mistakes all the time, but I try! Time alone, scarce around here, is important to me and does help, if/when I get it.

        I saw my GP about my depression and anxiety in January when my son was really ill and was prescribed medication, which I think has helped. I paid for a couple of counselling sessions but didn’t find it very helpful (I am lucky to have friends to bore, I mean talk to, if I need to). But then I was recommended for CBT. I feel very lucky to have had this much support. I know not everyone is. I had an 8-wk CBT course and felt I was getting more of a handle on things when it stopped. I started blogging the week after. Coincidence?

        To be honest, I’ve found blogging, reading blogs like yours, and connecting with others as a result has been more help to me than anything else.

      • That’s good, I’m glad you’re feeling supported. 🙂

  2. Claire SA said:

    Excellent as always! There’s no argument that in an ideal world, everyone would eat a balanced diet, have a work-life balance that kept them happy, move around frequently as part of their daily life, and have a strong network of friends and family around them. However, we’re not in an ideal world, and for most people with depression, at least one of those factors is seriously out of kilter. Having been on anti-depressants for the past 4 years now, and on and off for around 4 years before that, they’re a massive part of what keeps me from spontaneous blubfests, spontaneous temper tantrums, spontaneous ‘woe-is-me-pity-parties’ – you get the picture! The rollercoaster factor has been removed almost completely. Not to say I’m a zombie – I still have moods, but the fact is that they’re now like other people have them – sporadically and due to actual problems rather than things like stubbing my toe and instantly assuming that the world, gravity, snails etc are against me.
    The other major part has been friends. Close friends, and not only having them, but talking to them on a regular basis, and actually being honest with them. These people have brought me out of myself, often when they have huge problems themselves, and enabled me to start being part of what others consider to be ‘the normal world’. Having been exiled from there for years, it’s nice to be back!
    In addition, I’ve lost some weight, sorted some job stuff, got pets, got rid of emotional baggage and started a new hobby.
    My point is, no one thing has been the cause or the remedy. Many things can contribute to emotional wellbeing, be it in a positive or a negative light. What works for one won’t work for another – if they did, the drug companies would be out of a job pretty fast. Find what you can do, and what works for you. The MHF is misguided in putting an ‘exercise solves all’ slant on things, but they’ve got to start somewhere. Maybe next time they’ll pick ‘friends solve all’ and get slammed for ignoring exercise or people who like solitude. Or ‘chocolate solves all’ – it does, or so I tell myself – and get slammed for promoting obesity, or ignoring those with dairy intolerances. You can’t please everyone, but at least it’s got people talking about mental health! That’s got to be a good thing!

    • Oh definitely! The whole idea of the awareness week is great, and having a theme focuses attention and discussion on issues and options that people may not have considered before. I’m hugely in favour of it, I just think that a bit more thought needed to be put into this particular theme before it was launched.

      I was inspired to write this post by the amount of people online who are feeling excluded from the discussion; some because of physical disabilities, some because increased physical activity exacerbates their mental illness and some because for them it just has little or no effect.

      As you say, there’s no one size fits all treatment and it’s likely that whatever the theme someone would have felt excluded. But having such a large number of people who feel unable to engage in the discussion is a real shame.

  3. Great post, well written, nail on head etc Maybe they should have really emphasised that it’s doing what you can, not doing MORE that is the activity they had in mind.

    Do you have control over the ads on your page? just wondering, I’m being told where to find hot wives and girlfriends and that yoga will improve my health 🙂

    • I don’t, no. Sorry! Although you know, if there’s room in your life for a hot girlfriend you can thank me for inadvertently providing the link! 😉

  4. For me, I have to say that exercise does help. I had a breakdown a few years ago, and found my local CMHT completely useless. They made me go to group therapy for “goal setting” and “relaxation” which just made me dread those mornings even more than every other morning of my life.
    Eventually I got my shit a bit more together, and went back to work, but when I got pregnant I had to come off my medication. I dragged myself through my pregnancy, and it was touch and go for a while. As soon as S was born the midwives, the GP, bloody everyone was telling me to go back onto the medication, and that it was fine that it would leak into my breastmilk. I refused, and got a lot of “that” look from people.
    I knew I was high risk for PND, and because of the troubles I’d had with my ex and with S’s birth, was petrified that if I got ill again they would take her away from me. So every morning for about 6 months, I got up, put S into the buggy, and walked around 10k. It helped. So did having a tiny baby who only had me to look after her. I dragged myself out, this time without medication, or bloody CMHT and their stupid attempts at low cost therapy.
    I am aware, however, that this just makes me really effing lucky. I know that it wouldn’t have worked first time round – because I was a regular gym goer when I got sick in the first place. And I tried to keep going to classes etc when I was mid-breakdown, but I couldn’t bring myself to give a shit about lifting weights or spinning when it all just seemed so futile.

    • Thank you for sharing, I’m glad that exercise was beneficial the second time. Although I have to say, 10k walks are impressive!

      I felt the same about medication the first time I had PND, I think a lot of mothers do.

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