6 Things We Actually Need To Improve Our Mental Health Right Now

Awareness months and self-care platitudes only go so far. We also need these changes.
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This article was originally published on HuffPost US.

Your favourite Instagram influencer can post about self-care all day, showing glamorous pictures of bubble baths and retreats. Leaders across the country can offer lip service on the need to address mental health. A company can send an email to its employees honouring Mental Health Awareness Month.

But true mental health changes look much different from that.

An estimated 1 in 4 American adults lives with a mental health condition (and the number is similar in the UK, according to the Mind charity). The Covid-19 crisis has likely added to this figure, leading to what mental health experts colloquially call a second pandemic. Burnout, issues with alcohol, depression, anxiety, grief and more have touched millions of people over the past two years.

Children’s mental health concerns have also been spiking, exacerbating an already bleak situation. This prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups to declare a national emergency in youth mental health.

Top mental health experts know ways to address it. But making it happen – in a sea of dissenting political opinions, lack of funding, health care employee shortages and other obstacles – is much harder.

Here are just a few of the actual changes mental health professionals say we need from inside ourselves, in our homes and across the country right now.

Coping strategies from a younger age

When did you first learn to deep-breathe your way through a stressful situation? Potentially not early enough, according to Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behaviour analyst and author of Winnie & Her Worries.

Patel is teaching children as young as three how to compartmentalise problems and reduce anxiety through her own programmes – and she said many more educational systems like this need to exist.

“We need to be addressing ways to cope with everyday stressors at a young age. I get them as teenagers and it is so difficult because they have established poor coping mechanisms,” she says. “Those teenagers become adults and then we’ve got this huge problem.”

She wants parents to stop trying to “save the day” for their toddlers, instead of helping them handle situations on their own with parental guidance. Another important change includes parents evaluating how they handle stress themselves, as kids are watching and learning from them.

Social-emotional learning

The current school structure doesn’t align with how we live now, according to Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. Cook explains that the system was established for a agricultural not industrial society, and certainly not a wide mix of neurodivergent individuals, including those with mental health conditions such as ADHD.

Implementing social-emotional learning – or SEL – for all schools, which would address kids’ social, emotional, behavioural and mental health needs, would allow young people to better thrive in a learning environment.

According to Cook, SEL would include increased access to and education on mental health resources and strategies, from coping mechanisms like deep breathing to increased school staff training to handle social and emotional concerns. Currently, about three in four US schools teach SEL nationwide, according to an Education Week survey.

Paid mental wellbeing days and better work flexibility

Patel said both students and adults need mental health days that aren’t tied to sick days in any way as well.

“[Companies should] really separate that in HR policies, and almost praise individuals and reinforce them for taking time to reset,” she says, emphasising that employees shouldn’t have to mask it under the pretence of illness or another excuse.

“It’s not a day you’re taking because you have a cold or a personal day because you are feeling extra tired. It’s a day that you actually need to help individuals,” she explains, noting that it would also be ideal to provide resources or advice that may help a person’s mental well-being.

Other mental health based recommendations include moving to a four-day workweek, which Cook says is essential, along with job flexibility: “Let people work when they want to work.”

Experts stress that paid mental health days should be the norm within companies now.
The Good Brigade via Getty Images
Experts stress that paid mental health days should be the norm within companies now.

A media makeover

Patel is encouraged to see celebrities, such as Selena Gomez and Ashley Judd, talking about mental health struggles publicly. She hopes other representations – like realistic commercials that depict what it’s actually like to live with a mental health condition – will become more common, too.

People should see themselves in all types of media, Patel says, noting that some mental health commercials, for example, should have a picture of a mum running around with her kids rather than staring sadly out a window.

Unrealistic beauty standards also come into play here. Cook adds that additional media-related issues revolve around unrealistic images: “Can we just stop airbrushing models? They’re not going to stop, I get it, but all of that impacts mental health.”

Consumers can support companies that have pledged to stop airbrushing models and can also evaluate their own social media feeds to promote increased exposure to real bodies.

Following influencers who look like you can help rewire your brain to see your body for what it is – normal – and decrease the pressure to conform to something unhealthy.

Maternity leave and better childcare options

The pandemic has revealed the plight of the lose-lose situation that parents, especially mothers, face on a daily basis. Part of the solution to relieving parents’ mental health struggles, Cook says, is a minimum of one year of maternity leave (in the US, there is no mandate to offer paid leave) along with increased childcare options. She proposes placing them in or close to businesses where parents work.

“Parents need the bond and it’s important for children to feel connected. And when the day care is close to where an individual works, they can on a break go and say hi, have access to their child, [check on] a runny nose… have lunch together,” she says. This would eliminate the issue of parents being “forced to go back to work before they’re ready” or thrusting a child into a day care environment too early.

Additional day care reform ideas have included placing them in senior citizen centres for the emotional benefits to both the youngest and oldest Americans and federally funded health care to relieve financial burdens.

Tackling systemic inequalities in housing, health care, food access and more

Though people with mental health challenges might work hard to prevent and improve their conditions to the best of their abilities, systemic inequalities can make that difficult and even impossible.

Decreased access to housing, healthcare, food and more, greatly inhibits people’s ability to address or improve their mental health.

This certainly includes access to treatment, like therapy. Cook says there’s a need for government-funded mental health facilities run by universities and research centres. Providing an accessible and reputable source for help can assist people in getting the care they really need.

Platitudes about taking care of yourself and prioritising your mind only go so far. We need real change – and access – to make a shift in people’s mental health right now.