The “Haribo Effect”: why there is no quick fix for mental health care

On October 10, we celebrated World Mental Health Day, a World Health Organisation (WHO) initiative which aims to increase awareness of mental health issues and promote this year’s theme of “making mental health and wellbeing for all a global priority”.

This is an important initiative, which encourages collaboration and starts some important conversations about mental health. It’s a great idea to draw attention to mental health for one day of the year, but that should be just the starting point for more interesting conversations: in order to really capitalise on initiatives like World Mental Health Day, we have to treat them as a springboard for instigating more meaningful change.

You can view World Mental Health Day as an example of what I like to call the “Haribo Effect”. I don’t have anything against Haribo per se, but it provides us with a quick sugar fix which, although it satisfies us briefly, doesn’t give us the more lasting satisfaction that we would get from a balanced meal, like, say, a bowl of porridge or a poached egg on wholegrain toast! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a sweet treat every now and then, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that they can really sustain us. In the same way, initiatives like World Mental Health Day - or more specifically, the sudden frenzy of activity and media attention surrounding them - aren’t enough to make a real difference, on their own, to improving the mental health agenda.

That’s not to say they’re not beneficial. In fact, World Mental Health Day does a fantastic job of placing mental health front and centre of the social and political agenda. It also reminds us of the importance of prioritising self care and communication, provides useful education on the signs to look out for in people who may be experiencing mental health problems, and helps remove the stigma from discussing mental health concerns and asking for help. But once Mental Health Day - or week - is over, it can be difficult to maintain the same momentum.

On an individual level, we all need to remember that looking after our mental health is something that requires ongoing attention, 365 days of the year.

Mental health is really no different to physical health: we don’t expect to be fit and healthy just from eating a single salad and running around the block once (although that would be nice!). In fact, it takes sustained effort, including a combination of: 

  • Regular physical activity
  • Eating a healthy diet which is low in saturated fats and red meat and high in fresh fruit, vegetables and pulses
  • Avoiding or limiting our exposure to toxins like alcohol, recreational drugs and smoking
  • Getting regular health checks, including screening for cancer.

Most of us understand that it’s not enough to engage in these healthy behaviours once in a while: we need to try and stick to them as much as possible, and adopt an overall healthy lifestyle in order to look after our bodies.

Mental health is no different. It’s something that we should be paying attention to all the time, taking steps to protect our wellbeing and in some cases, getting the treatment we need, when we need it. Our pattern of mental wellbeing will not be transformed by one inspirational quote or one day’s effort but will require a commitment to developing new routines, taking on new challenges and changing patterns and habits. ‘If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got’. One ten hour session at the gym is much less beneficial than two half-hour sessions per week over a period of months.

But what does it mean to look after our mental health? Although it’s different for each of us, it starts with taking care of the whole person, so taking the steps outlined above to maintain our physical health is a great starting point. Taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep and eating healthily are all linked to improved mood. Other steps you can take include:

  • Staying connected to the positive people in your life including, if you have one, your therapist or mental health practitioner. But you may also have to make decisions to disconnect from the people in your life who cause stress, bring you down and create difficulties for you
  • Avoiding or limiting your exposure to social media, especially if it triggers negative feelings
  • Learning a new skill or starting a new hobby: this can be a great way to build self-esteem, whilst keeping your mind occupied and focused on something positive
  • Practising mindfulness: this really just means living more “in the moment”, and there are lots of ways you can achieve it, for example through meditation or journaling
  • Getting involved: studies have shown that participation in social and community activities, as well as committing acts of kindness, can increase happiness and wellbeing.

One of the most important things to remember is that mental health and wellbeing looks different for everyone: if you get to know your own triggers and learn to recognise the signs when things aren’t going well, then you can take whatever steps work for you to help you get back on track.

Initiatives such as World Mental Health can achieve a great deal, but only if we collaborate to ensure that the field of mental health care receives the sustained input and attention required to make meaningful change.

The spotlight needs to remain firmly on the key issues for mental health services, such as increasing government funding, improving access to services, reducing healthcare inequalities and ensuring that quality mental healthcare is available to all. In the meantime, we can all benefit from giving our mental health the same attention that we give to our physical health, not just on special occasions, or when we need a lift, but developing regular habits and ongoing patterns that maintain our emotional wellbeing and buffer us from life’s challenges. Maybe our mental health is just as important as our physical health, or perhaps even more important.