Friday, October 14, 2016

Mental Wellbeing and New Surroundings

In light of World Mental Health day earlier this week, I thought it best to check up on everyone and see how you’re doing. How are you feeling?

As many of us ICS volunteers in International Service have settled into new environments recently, it is important not only to talk about how our physical health may be affected over the course of these 3 months, but also our mental wellbeing. In our 3 in-country training days in Tamale, volunteers were given support and advice surrounding our health when we start to settle down in our host communities. One aspect that wasn’t mentioned, however, was how to keep an eye on our mental wellbeing.

Whilst adjusting to new surroundings, whether it’s just 30 miles away or over 3000 miles, people’s mental or emotional health can sometimes become an issue. When telling people of this amazing volunteering opportunity, I can’t even count the number of times I was told how much of an incredible experience it would be and how this scheme will shape me in more ways than one. However, it is difficult not to think of what you’re leaving behind for those 90 days. Friends, family, any loved ones and home comforts like sipping a nice brew and eating biscuits snuggled up on the sofa watching GBBO (Great British Bake Off, a most fantastic televised British baking competition that you will ever have the pleasure of watching, for my Ghanaian friends who may not know).

Adjusting to these new environments also means having your own ideologies challenged because of the difference in ways of living and political and justice systems, i.e. the difference stances on LGBT+ rights in Ghana and the UK, or even just different social attitudes between the North and South of Ghana for in-country volunteers who’ve had to settle into new host communities. Perhaps a volunteer may not suffer from a mental health problem, but in the circumstances where their environment has changed so much and so rapidly, their anxiety levels may build.

Of course, it’s easy for many Westerners to think about Mental Health as rife to our culture (like high expectations and pressure to succeed) and exclude what the rest of the World is going through. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), ‘if we don’t act urgently, by 2030 depression will be the leading illness globally.’ Not just the UK. Not Europe. Not America. Globally.

The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day, by the initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health is ‘Dignity in Mental Health-Psychological and Mental Health First Aid for All’. Many organisations such as the Federation and even WHO call for the parity of Mental Health first aid and Physical First aid. Mental health can range from OCD to disorders like anxiety or depression and the statistics for the UK are staggering: suicide is the most common cause of death for men between 20 and 49, as many as 10% of people will experience depression in their lifetime in England and one in five teens will experience a mental health problem in any given year. This is not just a problem in the UK.

There is an estimate of 2.4 million sufferers of mental health issues in Ghana, and less than 2% of those are treated. This may be due to the fact most Ghanaian civilians would be treated for mental health problems in specialised psychiatric hospitals which are closer to Ghana’s capital, Accra, which would service only a small percentage of the population. Yet, it could also be because these psychiatric hospitals have relatively less government funding than primary health care and general hospitals. I would personally question whether this is because of the stigma attached to mental health and misunderstandings of disorders. Even in the UK, misrepresentation of mental health issues like depression is common. Depression can often be misconstrued to be an overreaction or just someone upset, instead of treating it as an actual ailment; someone who needs help and treatment.

The World Federation for Mental Health calls for the parity of physical and mental health.

Image sourced from BuzzFeed UK Facebook page

The World Federation go into great detail about training courses for Mental Health First Aid, including a step by step action plan if you are concerned about an individual who might be suffering from a mental health problem. This action plan is not only important from sufferers of mental health but for the wellbeing of yourself and your peers. The Mental Health Foundation posted ten top tips to look after your mental health which include simple steps, such as exercising regularly, taking a break, doing something your good at and even talking about your feelings.

The World Federation for Mental Health’s ALGEE action plan for Mental Health First Aid

So, for my fellow volunteers and others who may want to seek advice for their mindfulness, take care of your own wellbeing. But also talk to others; you or someone else are probably in the same boat, and just might need that person to have a chat with to make them feel just that little bit reassured. I’ll leave on this:

‘When “I” is replaced by “we”, even illness becomes wellness.’

Useful links



Mindfulness apps: Headspace, Buddhify, Take a Break, Smiling Mind

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