Light at the end of the tunnel

So, you walk every day. You eat fairly healthily (at least, you practise everything in moderation). You get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked and regularly see the dentist (your teeth are looking lovely, by the way). You do all the things a health-conscious person should. But ask yourself this: when was the last time you checked in with your brain? It’s a sobering fact that 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life. In any one year, around one million Australian adults have depression, and over two million have anxiety. We’re living in a time of constant flux; technology is developing at a rapid rate and the internet has changed how we communicate. Everyone seems to be rushing, without taking the time to ask, “How are you?” and slowing down to wait for the answer. What often ensues are feelings of being left behind; isolation; insignificance. And while it’s fair to say that arthritis, creaky knees and a sense of mortality as we age don’t exactly inspire explosions of confetti, there are plenty of ways to live a rewarding and positive life, with the right outlook and social support.

“When you get to a certain age, say, post-65, your biggest concern becomes your health because at some point you may lose the capacity to do things – for example, that game of tennis you’ve loved for so long. And the realisation that life is changing can be confronting,” says psychotherapist Marie Rowland (talking-matters.com). “We experience loss in our lives in all sorts of ways and as with any loss, we have to grieve but also accept that through acceptance, you can swap it out for something else. You still want to maintain a meaningful life, so you have to be conscious about what changes are going to occur. Think about how you can incorporate new things in your life and re-engage with it in a meaningful way.”

Rowland believes that mental and physical health are equally important and work perfectly in tandem. “We live in a society that really wants to diagnose and treat through medication, but if you take a look at Eastern societies and also former times, people diagnose and then look at all sorts of lifestyle treatments such as exercise, diet and social clubs. These softer methodologies to alleviate the stress, in conjunction with mental and physical health initiatives, can work beautifully together and in support of each other.”

The difficulty is that not everyone feels comfortable speaking up when they’re feeling down. The grin-and-bear-it macho-rhetoric so common amongst the male population, does nothing to help men who are actually suffering. Culturally, men are often reluctant to betray signs of emotional vulnerability, lest they risk being seen as ‘weak’. And yet even the wealthiest, most successful men are susceptible to depression. Stephen Fry, Gary McDonald, Jim Carrey – all high profile personalities who have been beset by the ‘black dog.’ The good news is that the more we openly acknowledge there’s a problem, the easier it is to reduce stigma and encourage men (and women) to seek the help they need.

There are already initiatives out there designed to facilitate communication with an emphasis on mental health. The Men’s Shed Association of Australia (mensshed.org) gives men a space to connect with other like-minded males in the spirit of mateship, and stave off health issues that can manifest as a result of isolation. Meanwhile, R U OK Day (ruok.org.au) in support of suicide prevention, exists to ‘empower everyone to meaningfully connect with people around them and support anyone struggling with life.’ There’s no denying that talking to someone can be an antidote to dealing with the blues.

“What social interaction does is lets you share the pain, and you deserve to be comforted and acknowledged,” says Rowland. “That’s why therapy has become such a big thing nowadays because we don’t take the time to genuinely validate each other. Everything is racing by; children, grandchildren, life – and social interaction provides a genuine and meaningful connection, but also slows life down to a rate that is compatible with your level of thinking and way of life.” On the topic of therapy, Rowland says that before seeing a therapist, it is critical to reach out within your own family or support networks first, because they will be the conduit to a practitioner who can help you.

Never be afraid to speak up. Tell someone if you feel less than chipper, and remember you are relevant. “The advice and knowledge that you have is never wasted,” says Rowland. “By connecting back with younger groups through school associations or libraries, you can make a significant impact on the community – and engender feelings of self-worth in the process.” So do all the things you have to do. Go for a walk. Keep on top of your cholesterol. Remain connected. Conversation is a powerful thing.

For more information on dealing with depression, please visit beyondblue.org.au