mental health security: ten tips to thrive

We talk about food security quite a bit…. the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) define food security as a circumstance when ‘all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’  (http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3300e/i3300e.pdf).

But, I wonder what would happen if we transposed this concept into a mental health security…. what if all people, at all times, had physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and appropriate mental health care that met their emotional and neurological needs and social preferences for an active and healthy life….?

What might that kind of a world look like? How much capacity to care, contribute and succeed might be generated? What if we applied the same basic rules to keeping the world fed with nutritious quality food, to that of keeping the people of the world cared for with appropriate mental health support? How might such a refocus help us to see a new perspective and enhance our resolve to prioritize addressing the gap between basic physical health and basic mental health? Too idealistic …?

What if we decided that for ‘all people, at all times it was a reasonable human responsibility to do all we could to reduce the burden to mental ill health, and to prevent suicide? Would it change the way we see basic life support? No one would miss out, there would be no stigma, their would be more compassion for others perhaps…

Lets look at the food security side of things again…. food/nutrition is linked to both physical health and mental health outcomes. For example, FAO tell us that:

‘12.5 percent of the world’s population (868 million people) are undernourished in terms of energy intake, yet these figures represent only a fraction of the global burden of malnutrition. An estimated 26 percent of the world’s children are stunted, 2 billion people suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies and 1.4 billion people are overweight, of whom 500 million are obese. Most countries are burdened by multiple types of malnutrition… The social cost of malnutrition, measured by the “disability-adjusted life years” lost to child and maternal malnutrition and to overweight and obesity, are very high’ (http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3300e/i3300e.pdf).

…and then the World Health Organisation (WHO) tell us:

Untreated mental, neurological and substance use disorders exact a high toll, accounting for
13% of the total global burden of disease. Unipolar depressive disorder is the third leading cause of
disease burden, accounting for 4.3% of the global burden of disease. The estimates for low- and
middle-income countries are 3.2% and 5.1%, respectively. Current predictions indicate that by 2030
depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally. (http://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/WHA65/A65_10-en.pdf)

I am not suggesting that a direct correlation is apparent – but it isn’t too far fetched to recognise that good nutrition supports healthy brains and minds – we know that this is true….. but it is interesting that 13% of the world burden of disease (not population) is about untreated mental health problems, and about 12.5% of the world population is under nourished (either because good quality food is not available, or because too much poor quality food (ie processed foods) is available in the case of obesity).

To have a mentally healthy lifestyle and to secure mental health for all, one of the underlying basic needs is good quality food. Food contains the building blocks for mental health and neurological development. It stands to reason that if we don’t eat well, mental health can be adversely affected. Some excellent reading about mental health and the brain can found here: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/Feeding-Minds.pdf?view=Standard

So – if we are to aim towards mental health security and food security – here are ten tips to thrive:

  1. Eat to feed your mind and your mood (see the Feeding minds link above)
  2. Grow some greens (even in a pot will do!) – I have been spring cleaning my herb patch ready to plant some salad greens and giving the silver beat a little TLC that is already there! There is nothing like picking food and eating it  – the freshness is something to celebrate with every mouthful!
  3. Teach others (or learn if you need to) how to cook…. (simple fresh ingredients). Some participants in my research about young people’s mental health revealed that lots of people don’t know how to cook a simple healthy meal.
  4. Advocate for fresh food availability where ever you have influence, shops, schools, workplace…..
  5. Don’t buy (or limit it to treat-only) processed foods wherever possible. Choose wholemeal and grain breads, avoid the fast food chains – they sell convenience not nutrition…. don’t be fooled!
  6. Avoid the trans fats – they trick your brain chemistry with a short-lived little happy dance that quickly fades into an addictive depressive cycle if you feed the impulse
  7. On a humanitarian front – children need to be fed quality food everywhere in the world. There is very little hope (a mental health attribute!) for children without sufficient quantities of good food, without it they are extremely vulnerable towards mental health decline. So, even if aid agencies are not your kind of politics, build a bridge- do your bit if you can to feed bellies and brains. We have sponsored kids through Compassion for years, maybe you could do something like that too?
  8. Make a farmer your friend! Learn about how food is produced – take an interest, and encourage the production of good quality food. Choose foods that are produced safely, ethically and fairly. Sometimes they might cost a bit extra, but well worth the price. Farmers have a pretty tough job – they do their best to produce quality, they get the rough end of the stick (I suspect) by the big supermarket chains. If you respect quality food production and producers – attempt to demonstrate that by the way you shop.
  9. Eat your food mindfully – don’t just scoff it down! Take the time to relish the moment it is in your mouth, think about how you eat, where you eat, take time to eat slowly. Good for you waistline as well as your brain!
  10. Secure your mental health by eating well, secure the mental health of those you love by helping them to do the same!

Mental health security….is intertwined with food security. I hope for a future where all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and appropriate mental health care that meet their emotional and neurological needs and social preferences for an active and healthy life…. and enough good nutrition to underpin it all.

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2 comments

  1. Bill Spawton

    Thank you Rhonda for your thoughtful and sensible piece. As a MHN of over thirty years and a long-time back-yard organic veggie grower I’ve had a hunch about the link between what we put in our mouths and our mental health. Your post has crystalised some of the ideas that were (to use a food metaphor) half baked in my mind.

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