An article I wrote for Edinburgh Helping Hands
Mental health and wellbeing is a subject that is appearing in discussions more and more. Conversations are happening. From community hubs to cafes and classrooms, from shops, warehouses, offices and meeting rooms to playgrounds, parks and pubs – a topic (and I believe that we should be talking about it as one topic rather than separating mental and physical health) which is integral to every single human being in the world is appearing more regularly than ever before in one to one discussions, group chats, formal presentations, written articles, documentary films, drama productions and across social media output.
People are sharing their struggles and their successes in overcoming them, discussing tragic events and their impact, offering support to each other and suggesting a positive way forward when people need it most. Negativity around the issue – although still a very significant problem – is now being challenged more widely in a way rarely seen even just a few years ago.
The importance of this progress cannot be underestimated. But there is much more to do. In Scotland in particular – where people’s struggles with mental health and wellbeing represent a public health crisis – far too many people still do not have access to the information, support and services that they need. National and local governments need to lead with positive action. Funding and policy change is essential so that organisations can adapt and services can provide the support that people need. But we need not wait for that to happen before we act. Everyone has a part to play, and we can all do something – today. Helping Hands contribute to this, and you can too. More on that later, first let’s start by looking at mental health and wellbeing in a bit more detail.
Issues with mental health and wellbeing can be extremely complex to understand and it can be incredibly hard for people to recover. Roots of the struggles that any one of us can face can be in found in traumatic adverse events in childhood or adulthood and in the wide variety of day to day stresses that are around in our day to day lives, or often a combination. These struggles can lead to health problems which vary significantly in how they present and in their severity, and the specific steps that need to be taken to heal vary accordingly, and also depend upon individual preferences. However, whether we are trying to recover from a long term condition or to prevent ill health, the steps that we can all take follow the same path.
Further positive progress is that due to advances in research and gathering evidence of examples of successful practice, we know more about these steps than ever before. And many of them are things that most of us will not be surprised by and most are also within reach for all of us. So what are they?
There is one thing, above all else, that forms the crucial foundation for mental health and wellbeing for all of us – a relationship. Ideally several of them, but one is a start, and one can be enough. A buddy, mentor, friend, father, sister, mate, coach, uncle, step gran, teacher or pal – any will do. If we feel connected and supported and there is mutual trust then we are laughing, and hopefully literally because to have fun and to laugh together also has a powerful impact on our health. This is the foundation, so how about the next step?
We also know that if the connections and relationships that we make can also contribute towards feeling part of something wider, then the impact for us is greater still. To be part of a community is good for our health. That community can be a club, a cause , a school or society, a small partnership or a large following – ideally we should strive to be part of several communities within our community, but one can be enough to have a significant positive health impact.
Having the opportunity within these communities to be expressive and be creative is also healthy. It is important to feel able to share our views with others. Maybe you like to chat with others, deliver a talk, write, or rap? Maybe you paint, read, listen, knit, play an instrument or sing. All of these things represent options for positive steps forwards for our mental health and wellbeing.
Other options for steps that we can take are those that most of us can take with our feet, no matter how fast we can move them! Whether it is a gentle walk, a quick jog or a marathon run, each time one of our feet lands in front of the other we are taking a step towards being healthier – in every imaginable way. It may be that you like to climb or swim or to cycle or to dance or play football, it is all exercise for the connected mind and body that we each have that results in tangible positive health outcomes.
It is equally important too that we try to find time to relax. This is a important step, albeit one that doesn’t always involve much movement! It is essential that we balance our stress levels regularly. Stress is a natural response to situations that we face every day, too much is harmful but without any at all we would not be able to function. Few people will be learning something new to read that we cannot always find as much time for sleep as we would ideally like, but whereas we aren’t able to create more time in the day for this or any other activity, we can improve the quality of our sleep by how we live when we are awake. Taking any of the steps mentioned so far will contribute towards improving sleep quality and making sure that relaxing moments at any time of the day are more beneficial.
Mindfulness and meditation are also great ways to do this. This comes in a variety of forms, as well as more well known forms, it includes activities, such as boxing. Yes, you read correctly – boxing training is a form of mindfulness and meditation! An activity that we are able to focus fully on, with all of our attention and energy, provides a chance to balance our natural stress levels and feel more energised, focused and prepared for the next part of our day.
Other steps not yet mentioned are ones that often seen as being obvious, at least to the physical part of our mental health and wellbeing. They are eating as well as we can and staying hydrated. The importance of these steps should not be underestimated, particularly the fact that they have just as much of an impact on the health of our mind.
Learning about the steps that we can take towards improving our mental health and wellbeing is the foundation for a healthier future for us and then where possible sharing this information with those around us is the foundation for a healthier future for our community. Next up is trying to take some steps, and supporting others to take theirs where needed.
Edinburgh Helps Hands does exactly this . All of the team of volunteers – from experience -know the impact for communities of people working and playing together, whilst all of the time supporting each other to take positive steps forwards. A community space where everyone’s unique qualities and preferences are respected, as they work together towards a common cause. Everything that Helping Hands do is a step towards the cause of mental health and wellbeing for each member of the community and the community as a whole. Relationships, mutual support, positive and purposeful action, all whilst trying to provide opportunities for fun – the combination of these factors is evident in everything the organisation do. The work is the embodiment of individual and collective self care.
How does this look exactly in practice? Lets take one example and start with the start. Getting started with anything can feel challenging, particularly when some of the practical requirements are hard to meet. If we take football as our example: A child or young person needs, at very least, access to a park and a ball. Some kit and equipment would be helpful too and someone to support, guide and coach would make for an ideal environment for the health giving outcomes of fun, enjoyment and development. Helping Hands combine all of this during the weekly summer football sessions for girls and boys in the north, south, east and west of the city. All for free. Boxing fitness classes follow exactly the same principle, whether that be inside the Holyrood Boxing Gym or when the gym is taken out to the community by the volunteer coaches who set up portable equipment on the same local parks as are used for the football sessions.
As mentioned earlier, eating well and staying hydrated are easy wins for mental health and wellbeing, particularly after exercise, but only if you know how important these steps are and only if you have access to what is needed. Free water and healthy snacks, along with information and advice, are a staple of every Helping Hands session.
The work of the organisation in this regard does not stop there, far from it. Twenty tonnes of food have so far been collected and distributed to community members in need of support at various times not least over the winter months and particularly over Christmas. As far too many of us (particularly considering that we are living in one of the richest countries in the world) are fully aware of, providing food for our families or ourselves is becoming increasingly difficult even without the added difficulty of trying to provide extra at certain times of the year.
Then there is further additional stress and the associated anxiety and reduced self worth that so many people experience when trying to find funds for presents. Again, Helping Hands make crucial contributions to communities by collecting and donating toys as presents to children. As well as toys, over 250 bikes have also been bought and delivered so far to children at Christmas, which also have lead to opportunities for healthy activity and connections that outlive the winter snow. At a time when there are often even higher numbers of people than normal experiencing a mental health and wellbeing crisis, this support given by the Helping Hands volunteers is crucial.
The positive community health outcomes do not end there either. There is a team of volunteers who will readily share that their experience of working together to support others has led to opportunities to meet new people, learn new skills, teach others new skills and gain the increase in confidence that naturally follows. I can certainly say that I have experienced all of that and more from being part of the positive community of people as a volunteer.
If you are reading this and wondering about what help you can be to others in your local community, then contact Helping Hands. Whether taking part in the activities and accessing support or volunteering to provide it, being involved in our community is good for our mental health and wellbeing and that of those around us in so many ways.
And how about the possibility to do both, and at the same time? The brand new Helping Hands Run Club represents one such opportunity. The chance to meet new friends, people to learn from, people to provide learning for, people to work with and people to have fun with. The chance to set and achieve goals, to get fitter and to get healthier in every possible way, all whilst contributing to raising funds for all of the work that is being done together to reduce inequality across the city.
It might even lead to you running the Edinburgh half marathon or marathon, led by volunteers Jake Welsh and Julie Slaven, next year.
Whichever way you choose to be involved, you will be taking your own crucial steps towards creating a healthier life for yourself and a healthier community for everyone. Better still, you don’t have to wait for anyone or anything – you can start today.
Sean Humphreys is a Helping Hands volunteer and a professional Counsellor at Now Counselling.