MENTAL HEALTH. Its true meaning.

So before I start harping on, I have a few questions.

  • What is the first thing that enters your mind when you see or hear the words mental health?
  • Why are they so powerful?

When you come across those words I bet for the majority of people that if we played ‘word association’ we would be greeted with a whole range of negative words, negative perceptions, and for some, misconceptions about its meaning.

It is interesting that mental health – two words that affect every person on Earth have become so feared. Unnecessarily I might add!

  • If we were to play ‘word association’ with physical health, would your answers be any different? How about if we say social health?

I have been wanting to write about mental health and mental illness for a while because there are (in my eyes) big issues around the wording and terminology we have in our society. And not just with these, but with many other words associated to health and wellbeing every single day. Before I go on it is really important I point out the difference between mental health and mental illness.

Mental health ‘is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’ WHO. Mental health is something we all have, it can be both good and also not so good. And it moves, it changes, we may have ups and downs with mental health the same as we might with physical health.

Mental illness is ‘a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.’ –NAMI.

So I thought I would do a poll, my own little social experiment of word association and the responses were albeit very honest, but a reflection of how culture and society has led to us having a big misconception and lack of understanding of the word.

Some responses included;

Stress, depression, illness, fear, weak, not enough support, unstable.

How does this happen?

Why are we so drawn to negatives when talking about these words? And for those who clearly saw the tweet and status but didn’t respond, why didn’t you? Was it through fear of being associated with it? Was it because you don’t think it matters to you? Was it worry over whether you said the right/wrong thing?

I am fascinated with how this has become such a misunderstood term.

Let’s talk physical health. Everyone has physical health, one might have an accident and chronic pain, that required treatment and management but is (for many conditions) treatable. One might have a cold or flu, a little bug and physically feel unwell, but then a few days later and a small intervention i.e. antibiotics etc and they get better. We accept this in society because it happens to everyone right? We have all felt a little poorly at times, probably all visited the doctor or gone home for some tlc, and that’s fine.

We also have a HUGE boom in culture around physical health and working to get active, improve physical health both from government and health agendas but also social media getting involved. Crossfit gyms, personal trainers, various walking and exercise groups, Instagram pinterst and other social media platforms getting involved and suddenly it is cool to look after and work on physical health. Because at the end of the day, a good active balanced lifestyle has an impact on long term physical health right?

So why the hell aren’t we doing this with mental health?

We understand that physically, certain foods, exercise and/or physical activity, sleep, limited alcohol etc are all protective factors, they look after our physical health and have been proven to prevent the onset of many health conditions.

So with our mental health what can we do? It is NO DIFFERENT!! I find it very frustrating both professionally and personally. I have always, since the day I set up my company, tried to encourage the proactive side to our work. Yes, there is a place for a reactive service. But there is an even bigger place for PREVENTION, being PROACTIVE, and actively looking after our mental health.

The protective factors link in with physical, social and financial health. They can be as simple as;

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting sufficient daylight
  • Having quality time with friends and family,
  • Making the time to do your hobbies and have some time for you.

It isn’t rocket science, but we don’t always encourage them and we certainly don’t prioritise them in our own lives.

I don’t think it is always a lack of education or awareness, because we all know ourselves more than anyone else could. Sometimes we may need the support of others to identify them and put these factors in place, but I think the real issue lies with society, our culture. The fact that we go around cringing whenever we hear those words, we try to avoid engaging in those conversations in case somehow we get tarnished, or draw attention to ourselves. When actually what we need to do is start talking more; not about mental illnesses, but our own mental health. We see so many posts and pictures on social media for completing a big walk, hike or run, why don’t we do it when we have done an hours meditation? Or had an hour to self reflect? Why don’t we talk about our own mental health more to actually promote this aspect of health.

We need to stop being scared of these words and realise them for their true potential. Our mental health is fundamental and an essential part to our overall wellbeing, so why don’t we start acting like it! We know we can promote and improve mental health, the same as we can physical health, so let’s make a conscious effort to break down those misconceptions and start putting us first. We do that, and slowly we’ll start to change that unhealthy culture and have an environment where mental health is being talked about and prioritised the same as a person’s physical health.

I am going to kick start this off by leaving my own statement about my mental health;

‘Today I am going to spend some time at my allotment. Because my brain needs a rest and the fresh air always makes me feel better. And for me this a really important part of maintaining my own mental health’

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Mind in Snooker, My Story Part 3

After months of abusing my body with junk food, I decided that enough was enough. In order to combat my eating disorder, my initial objective was to solve the root of the problem… snooker. I had to ask myself why I was allowing snooker dictate my emotions, and the answer was simple. I wasn’t achieving what I knew I was capable of.
In hindsight, I was too lackadaisical, I had no structure to follow or goals to motivate me, I was simply hitting balls around a table.
Consequently, I decided to set myself targets for the upcoming season accompanied by a reward based system to keep me motivated. Having specific targets has made me feel like I am playing for a purpose, a feeling which has been redundant for some time.
Since target setting, my eating habits have been controlled significantly. I have substituted junk food with exercise as a tool to handle my emotions. Exercise is a brilliant form of escapism which gives me the same endorphin comfort eating once did, but with a feeling of achievement rather than disappointment afterwards.
Changing my thought process about snooker has made a positive impact on my performance and life in general. I am no longer using junk food as a comforter, which means I am happier, healthier and financially better off.
All in all, I feel like I am in a good place mentally and I am looking forward to the start of the 2015/16 season. I am working hard everyday to eradicate errors on and off the table, hopefully this will be a season to remember.

The Mind In Snooker – Part 1

If anybody reading this article before has ever played snooker, you will know how mentally challenging the game can be. Watching the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan make the game look so easy on television is a false representation of how difficulty snooker really is, both on and off the table.
I have been playing snooker since the age of 12 and I have recently decided to play full time in order to give myself the greatest chance of competing at the highest level. However, I have self-admittedly suffered from the high pressure which comes with playing elite sport and I used food as a comforter. I noticed this was becoming a serious problem due to the amount of weight I had put on, but it was a habit I didn’t feel I could control. Everyday I was punishing myself by eating as much junk food as possible because of the dissatisfaction I felt with my performance that day. I knew I was being mentally weak by listening to the little voice in my head which was telling me to eat when I was stressed, but I couldn’t overpower it.
Thankfully the little voice in my head which previously told me to eat when I was stressed is now a silent whisper. The techniques I have developed whilst working alongside Mind In Sport have allowed me to control my emotions rather than being controlled by them.
Written by Jack Bradford, Athlete Ambassador Mind In Sport Limited

How Useful is Your Gut?

When presented with a choice, many people may experience a ‘gut feeling’, and it is at this point whether we choose to follow that feeling or make a logical decision using our brain. Many of us will choose to utilise the power of our brain and take the logical route, and why not? Why should we let our gut make important decisions for us? Where does this feeling even come from? Furthermore, what are we actually experiencing when we get this feeling?

What if I were to tell you that we all have, what scientists have nicknamed, a ‘second brain’ in our gut? Yes, we all have masses of neural tissue filled with important neurotransmitters embedded within the lining of our intestines. Technically, this ‘second brain’ is known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), and astonishingly it contains some 100 million neurons, which is more than the Peripheral Nervous System and the spinal cord. The ENS can control gut behaviour independently of the brain. Simply, the gut has its own senses and reflexes.

These neurons found in the gut communicate with the brain via the Vagus Nerve (VN) and the brain can also send signals back to the gut, creating a feedback loop. The VN is the longest out of 12 cranial nerves. It extends from the brainstem and all the way down to the abdomen, via many of the major organs including the heart and lungs. Interestingly, 90 percent of the fibres in the VN were found to carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.

Why does our gut need to communicate with our brain? Our second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways. For example, feeling butterflies in the stomach is signalling that we are under physiological stress (all to do with our flight or fight response) and these feelings start in the gut only to tell our brain, not the other way around. Another example, stomach pains seem to affect one’s mood, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the gut to the brain above. Furthermore, electrical stimulation of the VN, noted as a useful treatment for depression, may be able to mimic these signals and therefore taking a step forward in mood disorder treatments.

While on the subject of depression treatments, depression medicine developed to target the brain may unintentionally impact the gut. The ENS uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is found to be in the gut. Serotonin is responsible for maintaining mood balance and social behaviour. Not only does our gut digest food, but it also plays a vital role in the maintenance of our moods, emotions and social interactions.

Many believe that rational decisions cannot be made if emotions are involved, but emotion and reason are actually deeply interrelated. If you are going to make a rational decision, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions can accelerate your decision making in the form of intuitions, hunches and gut feelings. Basically, when presented with a choice, difficult decision, or a hostile situation, and although we may not consciously remember, our brain would have stored these memories on our behalf without our knowledge. In the future, when we are presented with the same or similar situations, our gut has the capacity to tap into our brain’s memory bank (via the VN) and utilise these past experiences and make us feel drawn to a certain answer. So, technically going with our gut feeling is not guess work, but rather unconscious processing.

To sum up:

  • We have a second brain in our gut
  • Our ‘gut brain’ communicates with our primary brain via the Vagus Nerve
  • Majority of information is transferred from the gut to the brain, not the other way around
  • The gut has the ability to control moods, emotions and social behaviours
  • Emotion and reason are interrelated
  • The gut can access the brain’s memory bank and use past experiences to signal us for a preferred situation, without us knowing

I would argue our gut is very useful indeed.

Depression in Sport

As we commemorate the 3 year anniversary of Gary Speed’s death, we are reminded of the stark realities associated with depression. Whilst football still has a long way to go before tackling the stigma of mental health issues, the untimely death of Speed has brought about active change in tackling one of football’s biggest taboo subjects. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a fluctuation in footballers openly sharing their battle with depression; Lee Hendrie (former Aston Villa midfielder), Leon MacKenzie (former Norwich striker), Stan Collymore (former Liverpool striker), Paul Gascoigne (former England midfielder), Neil Lennon (Celtic FC manager). The Daily Telegraph reported that over a quarter of footballers suffer from depression, with ex-professionals forming the majority of that statistic. Sporting Chance clinic received phone calls from 10 footballers after the death of Gary Speed.

However, depression is not just a football-centric phenomenon. Sportsmen and women are perceived to be placed on a pedestal, immune from the grips of depression, however, they too are humans and victims to this oppressive mental health issue. Countless athletes have battled and continue to battle their way through depression; Dame Kelly Holmes, Iwan Thomas, Freddie Flintoff, Markus Trescothick, Frank Bruno, Ian Thorpe to name a few.

So what factors contribute to depression in professional athletes?

Whilst exercise is commonly associated with the release of positive endorphins in to the system, the conventions of professional sport can be detrimental to the human mind. Confinements of victory and defeat, the bitterness of injury, the pressure to retain/regain position on the team, concerns over ability to perform, internal/external pressures and sacrifices, and the relentless spotlight of the media can very often lead to a breaking point in mental resilience.

As previously mentioned, former professional athletes are increasingly predisposed to suffering with depression. This can be the outcome from a variety of factors; extreme change in environment (from adrenaline fuelled competition to an empty void and loss of routine), loss of identity, cessation of elite demands, and biological factors (significant decrease in serotonin levels).

Tackling depression in sport.

The death of German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009 after losing his battle against depression, sparked the creation of the Robert Enke Foundation, which provides 24 hour support to players who are experiencing mental health issues. Not only this, the PFA released a 36 page document about depression to ex-footballers after the death of Gary Speed in order to provide additional support and advice.

Other forms of support can be found in a variety of places. Utilizing your expertise in your sporting area, such as coaching and a supervisory role can help to alleviate an onset of depression. Consulting a sport psychologist is also a very good and specific route to apply techniques (check out our website to see a range of services that we can offer you; www.mindinsport.com ).

At this point, it would seem apt to quote comedian Jason Manford as he commemorated Robin Williams, in saying “The world needs you even if you don’t think it does. I promise, we need you here, now.”

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90

An athlete’s story: Clean eating and intense training– where do we draw the line?

I’m writing this blog today not as a professional in mental health, not somebody who offers emotional support nor as a therapist but for the rare occasion, as myself in the role of athlete. This is a topic close to my heart because I have seen the effects of over training and food restriction take hold of those around me but I have also experienced areas of this myself across my teenage years and even to this day …

Elite sport is a very unique culture, performance is key and in order to achieve that level of excellence people’s standards of wanting perfection in everything from physical attributes, conditioning, aesthetics through to our personality types are extremely high! So, in a world where this is the norm how do we know what is healthy? How do we know when we are within a healthy zone of training, eating and performance culture without crossing that line in to routine, obsession and unhappiness? And beyond that in to eating disorders and further mental health issues?

I guess the real answer is that for most, we probably don’t! Not least until we are caught in that cycle and experiencing these things for real! You will find much research in sport discussing the importance of good nutrition, there is of course evidential backing for clean eating, fuelling your body efficiently and ensuring our ‘machine’ – our only vessel to execute greatness in sporting domain is appropriately fuelled! Likewise, with the training in order to achieve the very best standards in sport (regardless of the sport) you will find hours of practice, dedication, rehearsal and conditioning are essential to meet the mark – rest and recovery of course being just as important in that!

Now with the amount of sport science involved in sport these days athletes are very well looked after in these respects, we can trust in the team around us to provide us with the information, programmes and support to achieve these high standards. However, to follow such routine takes a certain type of person…

Somebody said to me once when I was a young athlete ‘in order to make it in sport, you have to have an element of craziness about you’, now at the time I didn’t understand what this meant. But years on, through many or the usual ups and downs of sport, more understanding of the sporting culture and greater self awareness in knowing my own habits I realise they were fairly accurate! That’s not to say I’m crazy or those around me are crazy, but I realise that there is certainly an element of obsession, addiction, routine and perfectionism that comes with the territory of making it in performance sport.

What can start as a routine and merely ‘following the programme’ quickly becomes your world, your whole world starts to revolve around the sport, the eating and the training you do … but that’s normal isn’t it? Because you have targets to meet? Goals to achieve? And this is only way to get there?!?!

In some respects those goals keep you going, they motivate you and inspire you to keep going, keep pushing and striving for perfection. One of my favourite quotes was given to me by my father (an ex international rugby player himself) and that was ‘by aiming for perfection we can reach excellence’. This has almost become my own motto – but in my training for big competitions where I stuck to training religiously and clean eating, no drinking, no going out, routine and discipline in everything I did, it quickly started to turn to something else….

Although training brilliantly in the gym and feeling great physically, there came a point where I noticed starting to feel unhappy about following the plan for myself. I envied those around me indulging in what they wanted, I couldn’t allow myself to have that treat or cheat meal in fear of the guilt that would follow, I never wanted to break the routine because id set myself a target and if I didn’t follow it through till after competition that would meant I failed, I would have lost, I would have done myself an injustice.

Now my reasons for this structure was certainly not weight based!!! And in reality I was very rational in that I knew I was never going to suddenly put on lots of weight or my performance suddenly dip – it was purely the target and expectation I had set myself. But that wasn’t the driving force for me…

Wanting to go in to big competitions knowing I had done everything I possibly could to be the best I can be, that was my motivator – that has always been my number 1 motivation in everything I do. ‘TO BE THE BEST ME’ not to look back and think I could have done any more.

So how do we break the cycle? I guess for me, as somebody who experienced over training as a teenager I know my signs and indicators a lot better. I can recognise that there is a difference between what is needed and what I want, I know my body a lot better. I know when I can push it but also when I need to rest. I can recognise when that need for excellence is starting to become more of an obsession than a lifestyle.

For me, a healthy mind is a healthy body – I have always been a strong advocate of this message not only because of the research available but because I feel it myself! I follow a healthy lifestyle, I sleep well, I don’t drink very often, I eat well and make good food choices and I also work hard in the gym. As much as I love to feel great inside and out from this choice of lifestyle I can also now see that times where I am really craving rest, something different, spontaneity of eating whatever I fancy, having a drink with a meal etc it is probably because I need it. And that’s ok!

I have learnt that actually I feel much happier by following that lifestyle but allowing myself to enjoy things around me and the things I crave. I always think that being rational, having perspective and also just enjoying life, and allowing yourself to be happy helps with making these choices…

There is so much pressure on athletes to look and be a certain way, so much media attention around lifestyle, fitness and clean eating that images and advice surround us everywhere we turn. But there are two rules people all need to follow when taking on any of these lifestyle changes;

  1. Each person is different, you have to learn what works for you, what you want, what your body needs and also your mind needs, emotionally where do you sit with all of this?
  2. You have to be happy! If you aren’t happy then is it working for you?

Life is far too short not to be happy and I know for me my performance is crucial, clean eating is important as is my training but ultimately if I do all of those things and aren’t happy along the way then that’s the failure. The failure and injustice isn’t in skipping a session to rest, having that lie in, or eating something bad, the failure is depriving my body and mind of things I want, the things I need and I now realise that by actually by doing that from time to time it helps me keep a good equilibrium. I am able to sustain an all-round healthy lifestyle, one that is disciplined, positive and performance based – not robot like!! Most importantly one which fits me!!!!

Attitudes towards counselling Services in Sport – does gender play a part?

Recently there has been another surge in media attention around the amount of individuals in performance sport with mental illnesses and the accessibility of counselling services due to more athletes and staff speaking out about their own battles with mental illness. The stigmas associated with seeking mental health support for those involved with sport has been well discussed and documented but how much does gender play a part in this? Is there a difference between how men and women feel about counselling services? Are certain populations more likely to access support?
Research in to counselling services and psychology support recognises that gender is a significant factor in how individuals perceive their need and use. A study which examined the attitudes towards male athletes who accessed mental health support reported that men were viewed more negatively than those who may have seen a sport psychologist for example, using terms such as ‘weak’ (Raalte et al, 1992). However when the study was repeated within a female athlete group there was no significant difference in attitudes towards others seeking mental health support (Brooks and Bull, 2001). This has also been supported by findings of Addis and Malik (2003) who found similar differences in attitudes and an underutilisation of services within the male athletic population because of perceived gender roles, claiming that ideologies and masculinity were the main causes. Good and Wood (1995) focused a little more in depth on these gender roles and found that male athletes felt the need to conform to such roles and hold negative attitudes towards the services because ‘real men’ have control over their emotions, are powerful and have a better self reliance therefore there is no need to access support.
Alongside these perceived gender roles, the athlete’s level of openness also has an impact on attitude formation and uptake of services. Generally speaking individuals who are more aware of their emotions and more open to the idea of counselling are more likely to access the support (Vogel et al 2007) but gender differences have also been found within levels of openness within the population. Women are found to have more favourable attitudes towards accessing mental health support than men (Fischer and Turner, 1970; Leaf, Bruce, Tischler, and Holzer, 1987). This is supported by Komiya, Good and Sherrod (2000) who also found that female athletes have a higher level of emotional openness, a more positive attitude towards mental health support therefore experience less self stigma and are more likely to access such support.
What this research indicates is a clear difference in gender roles, how social stigmas affect males and females in different ways, and how there is an evidential backing of females being more open to access support services; whether that’s counselling or psychology in general. This means that for the professionals working in sport we need to be warm and welcoming and ensure any fears around such judgements are reassured and eradicated, but more importantly for the world of sport in general to ensure we keep working to tackle these stigmas, eliminate old fashioned gender stigmas which exist in sport and do more to encourage the uptake of relevant support for athletes.