Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at a roundtable in UK Parliament featuring some of the UK’s leading lights on the topic of mental health. The event brought together a number of charities, NGOs, and individual thought leaders for a wide-ranging discussion. Our goal was simple: to illuminate those aspects of mental health which tend to be missed or neglected by policymakers.
This kind of thinking has never been more vital, especially given the steady decline in mental health standards across the UK in recent years. According to the NHS, the service prescribed no less than 83.4 million antidepressant drugs to struggling patients in 2021/22 – a 5.07% increase from 2020/21. This marked the 6th consecutive year the number of total prescriptions went up, indicating that clinical depression is a growing problem in our society.
Anxiety is another major source of suffering nationwide which was only exacerbated by the pandemic. The mental health charity Mind estimates that 65% of adults and 68% of young people struggling with mental distress reported significantly worse symptoms following the first lockdown. About 9 in 10 young people (88%) also said that loneliness during this period made their mental wellbeing worse, and 1 in 4 adults (26%) experienced intense anxiety symptoms for the first time.
Given this grim context, it’s encouraging to see ministers are increasingly willing to consider fresh solutions to this endemic problem. Indeed, the prevailing mood at the roundtable was that simply improving mental health services may not be enough; we also need a nationwide focus on prevention, rooted on institutions which can anchor struggling individuals in networks of support.
Take team sports as an example. For years, sports charity Lord’s Taverners has been running a programme called ‘Wicketz’ aimed at 8-19 year olds in disadvantaged areas. It gives these young people a chance to play regular games of cricket, and in the process build community spirit, friendships, and individual self-esteem through cooperative play.
To replicate this example across the country, the government and local associations could consider creating more opportunities in schools and colleges for young people to engage in team sports with their peers. For adults, having regular physical activity events integrated into their work life could also offer huge benefit to their mental wellbeing, alongside their overall health.
The mental health benefits of team sports are striking, although by no means is this the only effective strategy. Group-based mindfulness practices, such as yoga, can also offer many of the same advantages, incorporating control of the breath as a helpful tool in stress management.
The practice of yoga is aimed at building strength and flexibility, but also provides the space and focus for mental clarity and emotional balance which can help guide us through life’s difficult moments. There is well-cited evidence that yoga reduces levels of circulating cortisol (the ‘stress-hormone’), and improves regulation of the sympathetic nervous system – the body’s stress response.
Integrating mindfulness practices into our work culture, perhaps through scheduled yoga/movement sessions, could help realise these benefits for everyone. Corporate ‘wellbeing retreats’ could also be considered, being made more accessible by offering opportunities in community centres, public parks, and partnering with rural estates.
In both sport and yoga, the combination of physical activity and social connection offers an effective bulwark against mental distress. However, there are numerous other factors to consider: nutrition, quality of close relationships, social media and time spent in nature, which all play a role in determining our overall level of health and happiness.
A full 360 degree preventative strategy for mental health must take all these factors into account to be truly effective. This could mean anything from more focus on maintaining green spaces in cities, introducing healthier food in school and office canteens, or offering advice on ‘digital hygiene’ to young people to inform and be in control of their social media usage.
Even taking steps to improve oral health can play a role. In my work as a dentist, I regularly advise patients to treat their mouths with the same respect as they would their wider body. The importance of valuing oral health is reflected in other parts of the body and the mouth-body connection cannot be overlooked. Poor oral health, which can often coincide with poor nutrition and lifestyle factors, can have a genuinely destructive effect on mental wellbeing.
Good oral hygiene, irregular consumption of free sugar, limiting alcohol and eliminating tobacco, alongside regular dental visits are essential to securing good oral and overall health. By adopting some positive health habits like daily interdental cleaning or chewing sugar free gum after meals – which also has stress-busting properties – we can take small but vital steps towards securing a healthy body and mind.
These small-scale tools may seem disparate, yet they all contribute to the same goal: to create a culture of wellbeing which gives people the knowledge, resources, and skills they need to live happier lives.
It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and it may also be true that it takes a whole culture to keep its individual members healthy, happy, integrated, and supported. The work of building this culture should start now.