A study by Dr. Karen Hallam
A Clinical Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Chronic Disease, Victoria University
Steady improvements in health care and awareness within the community have led to a dramatic shift in the types of illnesses that people may experience nowadays. Issues such as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer have raised public awareness of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and our ability as individuals to make changes in our behaviours for the sake of our health. It is possible that your own awareness of these ‘lifestyle’ associated diseases has encouraged you to enroll for the Stepathlon 100 Day Race.
In 2001, The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicted that by 2020 over 15% of the global burden of disease will be associated with mental illnesses. Already, major depressive disorder (also called clinical depression, unipolar depression or depression) is the third largest cause of disease burden worldwide, showing the growing need for societies and health professionals to improve the mental, as well as physical health of communities.
While most of us feel the ups and downs of our moods and the circumstances we face in our lives, mental illnesses are not just extensions of our typical moods. Depression and anxiety are some of the most frequently experienced mental health issues. When trying to understand the origins of these illnesses we now believe they are a complex interaction of our inherited genes, our experiences growing up and what is happening to us in life now. The simplest way to think of how these parts interact is to think of our mental health as a glass.
If we have any mental illness in our families, then, unfortunately, we begin with adding a bit of water (which represents risk) to our glass in the beginning. If we have troubles in childhood such as bullying at school or physical health problems, we add a bit more to the glass. Finally, if we are having normal troubles such as problems with our partner or finding it hard to make money stretch from week to week, this again adds more water to the glass. We all have glasses, many will be lucky enough to have small amounts added in various combinations and never become over full. Unfortunately, others will have more than enough of these contributions to overfill their glasses and develop a mental illness. This period is often called ‘first episode’ and this tends to be a critical time to get help if you need it. If you get help with medication, talking therapies or even asking friends or family for help, the level of water can be reduced and the chance of more overfilling minimised. Unfortunately, when the glass is continually overfilled for many years, people can develop chronic mental illnesses, which has a huge impact on most parts of life. I often share this example with clients to explain why different people do and don’t become unwell and that there are some elements of our risk that we can control and those we cannot.
Lots of factors contribute to us potentially developing mental health issues.
This model is formally known as the stress-diathesis model. It is a helpful example for discussing risk for many illnesses. For example, the risk of type 2 diabetes may result from a family history of diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in sugars.
In mental health, the stress-diathesis model can give you back some control. This is because the stress component (the water added to the glass throughout life) is somewhat up to you to influence and learning new coping skills can potentially ameliorate the risk. We can manage stress differently, choose behaviours and pick up skills in life that minimise stress and reduce that water level. In some cases, people with a diagnosed mental illness may also benefit from taking medication to assist with this on a biochemical level. The other benefit of this model is that it recognizes that we are all different, we all have different risks and predispositions but in the world of mental health, we can make changes to these.
In deciding to take up the Stepathlon 100 day program you are already changing these risks. Next week we will give you some information about the benefits of exercise on your physical and mental wellbeing. You can take your first step towards measuring this impact by taking the Happy Feet: Stepathlon Mental Health Assessment by clicking the ME tab on the Stepathlon website. With every step you take, you improve your mental health, so congratulations on beginning your journey.
A final note to some who might read this and be aware that you are struggling with some of these issues. I would encourage you to seek some help, in whatever form works for you. It might be talking to your family, friends or colleagues, looking it up on the internet (there is fantastic information available at Psychcentral.com) or talking with your general practitioner or a health professional. I look forward to sharing more insights with you on understanding and improving your mental health over the coming weeks.
Author credentials – Dr. Karen Hallam is an experienced clinical psychologist, educator and currently holds a position as a Senior Research Fellow with the Victoria University Centre for Chronic Disease.