Key factors to protecting our mental health

The MHF research has found that: more time in green spaces, getting better sleep, avoiding illicit drugs, avoiding unmanageable debt, prioritising leisure activities and gaining a better understanding of mood regulation are all methods that are evidence-based as effective approaches to protect our mental health.

This research which draws from a combination of mental health research evidence, expert advice and public opinion, The MHF believes this can be used to deliver the best guidance for use in public mental health advertising.

“Our study represents a major step forward on existing public mental health advice, with several applications for health promotion campaigns and courses.”

This study used a methodology called Delphi which differs in that it uses qualitative and quantitative techniques, this then assesses already existing research and evidence to reach a consensus on a chosen topic.

The 23 international experts involved in the research produced 158 initial recommendations which was then refined down to a total of 29 by the study’s authors. The final stage of the study was carried out when members of the public were asked to rate a further refined number of recommendations that landed at 14. The participants rated each one on its usefulness and applicability to their life and their mental health. From this final stage, eight recommendations were chosen that were all either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ useful and applicable.

The eight chosen recommendations by members of the public were (in order of popularity):

  1. 'Be aware of using drugs to cope with difficult feelings'
  2. 'Build money skills and seek financial support if you need it'
  3. 'Get more from your sleep'
  4. 'Develop awareness of your feelings and emotions'
  5. 'Have something to look forward to'
  6. 'Get closer to nature'
  7. 'Speak to someone you trust for support'
  8. 'Stay curious and open to new experiences'

A further five recommendations missed out on the top spots, but are included in the MHF statement:

  • 'Have a healthy diet'
  • 'Help others, contribute to something bigger'
  • 'Engage in physical activity'
  • 'Practice gratitude and cultivate hope'
  • 'Strengthen social connections'

Although many of these recommendations are easily achievable by many in their daily lives, the MHF acknowledges that for many some will be harder to follow than others. This is mostly due to societal and socioeconomic factors beyond their control such as poverty and inner city living with a lack of green space and heavy traffic.

The Director of England and Wales Mental Health Foundation has said:

“There’s surprisingly little agreement about the recommendations designed to help people look after their mental health. There’s also a lack of transparency about how the recommendations in existing campaigns were arrived at – in some cases, they’re from a small group of well-networked psychiatrists. Our study aims to change things, by offering recommendations that reflect the best available evidence on what is likely to be helpful to people in the real world. Furthermore, we are clearly declaring the rigorous methodology we used to generate these recommendations.”

Dr Kousoulis also commented on the danger around what they call ‘miracle cures’, criticising the wellness industry and emphasising that these recommendations are not that. Dr Kousoulis and the MHF understand that mental health is a vastly complex issue that sits on many intersections such as poverty and class, race, gender, education levels and isolation.

“Our research shows that it’s the fundamentals of life that protect our mental health: our finances, our relationships and our experiences…Time and time again, we’ve seen a powerful wellness industry taking advantage of people’s vulnerability to offer ‘miracle cures’ in exchange for improved wellbeing. Our evidence challenges the notion that this is what most people want.”

Speaking on the responses by participants in the study, Dr Kousoulis said: “The majority of people in our study, with the hindsight of their experience of poor mental health, told us that getting some support, to avoid illicit drugs and unmanageable debt, to sleep better and to regulate their emotions, is what would have made the biggest difference to them.”

It should go without saying but is also vital to emphasise again, as Dr Kousoulis did that these recommendations are not a catch all solution and are inevitably more accessible and easier for some than others. It is interesting to note however, how the most favoured recommendations from members of the public differed from the experts.

Experts cited taking regular exercise and eating a healthy diet as being a major contributing factor to better mental health. However, when we look to the recommendations chosen by participants it is in the simpler, human things - from speaking to someone you trust, staying curious, or having things to look forward to - that we see an accurate representation of what people find the most value in when it comes to our wellbeing.