This year, Mental Health Awareness Week is based on the theme of 'Nature'. Nature's power to heal and restore is incredible and, as herbalists, our members are able to provide a link between the power of plants, and anyone who may need support with their mental health.
So as well as being inspired to reconnect with nature, to interact with it, and to allow nature itself to support you, why not experience what natural medicines and a herbalist who gives you the time and space to explore how you are feeling could do for you?
Strategies for maintaining mental health
When was the last time you thought about your own mental health?
We all know that 21st century life is challenging, and we are all at risk of experiencing relationship breakdown, bereavement and loss of confidence and self-esteem. Some of the difficult and unpleasant emotions we feel are completely within the range of ‘normal’. It can be a very appropriate response to life circumstances to feel low, anxious and sometimes even like life isn’t worth living.
The same thing happens when a relative dies. We can’t take time off to ‘mourn’ these days, and we don’t wear black, so no one really knows how we feel. We don’t acknowledge these emotions and we certainly don’t like unpleasant emotions, because they are really unpleasant and at times devastatingly painful.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to emotional disruption due to factors such as social media, pressures of school, and family breakdown.
The problem is that we no longer talk to one another, and we have, to a certain extent, lost our ‘community’. So, for example, a new mother with a young baby might find she has to go back to work after a very short time rather than spending time with her own mum, or other local mums with babies and toddlers.
We usually have to face these emotions alone, because we think this is what we should do.
What is mental health?
We hear the term ‘mental health’ very regularly these days, but what does it mean? One definition states that mental health is ‘a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being’.
A definition of ‘mental illness’ on the other hand is ‘a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking’.
These definitions can be confusing, and as a mental health nurse I hear some strange conversations around mental health and ill health. I frequently hear people making comments such as, ‘we all have mental health’ which makes no sense to me. It’s like someone saying, ‘we all have physical health’. Yes of course we do!
I find the labelling and diagnosis of people a little bit frustrating these days. Sometimes people are struggling with a difficult life situation and don’t need to be diagnosed as ‘anxious’. They just need some emotional and physical support.
I believe that we are all prone to emotional difficulties at various stages of our life.
What are common mental health problems?
Sometimes we use the phrase ‘common mental health problems’. This usually refers to anxiety and depression, and related problems such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and panic.
Anyone can experience these problems, at any age. For example, a pregnant woman might suddenly become panicky when previously she has never felt particularly anxious. Or maybe an older person may be distressed going through difficult life changes or career choices.
Sometimes people who develop physical health problems can become depressed due to the effect of the illness on their lifestyle. Depression might also follow a relationship breakdown or a bereavement. In these circumstances, you might be advised to ‘pull yourself together’ or told that you will get over the breakup. Well you probably will get over it, but at the time, the depression is very real and very distressing.
We can usually identify a trigger to when we became emotionally less well, but sometimes we can’t. Depression or anxiety can appear out of the blue at any age, sometimes for no apparent reason.
Do you feel ashamed and guilty?
If your GP or nurse suggest you have a mental health problem, it can be lead to feelings of guilt and shame. We feel we should be able to cope – after all, there are people all around us with similarly challenging lives who seem to be fine. They can still go to work, socialise and do the housework. The truth is, we are all different and people have a variety of coping mechanisms. For some people, going to work is a distraction whereas for others, it would be impossible to carry on working through tough life situations. Also, we generally have no way of knowing what other people are going through. It’s very easy to assume that everyone else is OK.
In actual fact, when life is hard, becoming anxious or depressed might be the most appropriate response at the time. Maybe we need to rest, take stock of our situation and develop new ways of responding to issues.
Can herbal medicine help with mental health problems?
In my experience, talking through an issue with someone you don’t know can really help. You can do this via the NHS and most localities offer self-referral to mental health services.
Unfortunately waiting lists are long, and treatments can be limited. It may be that you would like to try an alternative to antidepressants or would like to reduce them if you’ve been taking them a long time.
During our consultation, you will have the opportunity to tell your story from the beginning. We will discuss your current treatments, and I will ask about your medications. Some herbal medicines can be taken safely alongside conventional medications, but it is important to be aware of possible interactions between herbs and drugs.
Because I’m a mental health nurse, I can combine emotional support with herbal medicines. Anti-depressants are very much overprescribed in our society and although they have a place, they are not always the answer. I am actually a big fan of antidepressants in the right circumstances, and I will definitely advise someone to go to the GP if I have concerns about their mood or mental health in general.
I have a close family member on the Autistic spectrum and I am very familiar with the associated difficulties experienced by people diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Condition.
Simple lifestyle changes can be helpful too, and we will discuss exercise, stress and your nutrition. I am an experienced psychiatric nurse and if I feel herbs would not be of benefit, or that you need more specialised care, I shall discuss that with you too.
What about serious mental illness?
‘Serious mental illness’ sounds a bit scary, but usually refers to diagnoses such as bipolar condition, or schizophrenia.
This can be a little more complex because you might be taking specific medications, or a combination of medications. However, it is still possible to use herbal remedies alongside, although sometimes I might ask whether I can contact your mental health team to ensure safe prescription of herbs.
Some people decide to manage their illness without medication and I can work with that too. If you have agreed with your health care providers not to take medications, but to manage your symptoms in different ways, we can discuss an approach that’s right for you.
There are some well-known herbs used for anxiety or low mood. Good examples are Valerian which has anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety actions. St John’s Wort is a well-documented antidepressant, but it interacts with quite a few conventional medicines including the contraceptive pill, and SSRI type antidepressants.
However, there are many herbs to be used, and as herbalists we treat each person as an individual. For example, a person may be low in mood, and we will prescribe according to their individual need, and that might not include St John’s Wort. There are many other herbs which help. We consider your overall general health, past medical history and current life circumstances.
Nutrition and lifestyle are so important and, being the common-sense herbalist, I will be sure to discuss some realistic and practical steps to recovery.