Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at a parliamentary roundtable featuring some of the UK’s leading mental health advocates. The event brought together a number of charities, NGOs, and individual thought leaders for a wide-ranging discussion. Our goal was simple: to illuminate those aspects of mental health which tend to be missed or neglected by policymakers.
Given the steady decline in mental health standards across the UK, this kind of discussion has never been more vital. According to the NHS, 83.4 million antidepressant drugs were prescribed in 2021/22 – a 5.07 per cent increase from 2020/21. This marked the 6th consecutive year the number of total prescriptions rose, showing that clinical depression is a growing problem.
Anxiety is another major source of suffering nationwide which was only exacerbated by the pandemic. The mental health charity Mind estimates that 65 per cent of adults and 68 per cent of young people struggling with mental distress reported significantly worse symptoms following the first lockdown. On top of this, about 9 in 10 young people (88 per cent) also said that loneliness during this period made their mental well-being worse, and 1 in 4 adults (26 per cent) experienced intense anxiety symptoms for the first time.
It’s encouraging to see ministers who are increasingly willing to consider fresh solutions to this endemic problem. Indeed, the prevailing mood at the roundtable was that simply improving mental health services may not be enough; we also need a nationwide focus on prevention, rooted in institutions which can anchor struggling individuals in networks of support.
Take team sports as an example. For years, sports charity Lord’s Taverners has been running a programme called ‘Wicketz’ aimed at 8–19-year-olds in disadvantaged areas. It gives these young people a chance to play regular games of cricket, and in the process build community spirit, friendships, and individual self-esteem through cooperative play.
To replicate this example across the country, the government and local associations could create more opportunities in schools and colleges for young people to engage in team sports with their peers. For adults, having regular physical activity events integrated into their work life could also offer huge benefits to their mental well-being, alongside their overall health.
The mental health benefits of team sports are striking, although not the only effective strategy. Group-based mindfulness practices, such as yoga, can also offer many of the same advantages, including control of the breath as a helpful stress management tool.
Yoga is aimed at building strength and flexibility whilst also providing the space and focus for mental clarity and emotional balance. There is well-cited evidence that yoga reduces levels of circulating cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), and improves regulation of the sympathetic nervous system – the body’s stress response.
Integrating mindfulness practices into our work culture, perhaps through scheduled yoga/movement sessions, could help realise these benefits for everyone. Corporate ‘well-being retreats’ could also be considered and made more accessible by offering similar opportunities in community centres, public parks, and partnering with rural estates.
In both sport and yoga, the combination of physical activity and social connection offers a bulwark against mental distress. However, there are many other factors to consider: nutrition, quality of close relationships, social media and time spent in nature, which all play a role in determining our overall level of health and happiness.
Even taking steps to improve oral health can play a role. In my work as a dentist, I regularly advise patients to treat their mouths with the same respect as they would their wider bodies. The importance of valuing oral health is reflected in other parts of the body and the mouth-body connection cannot be overlooked. Poor oral health, which can often coincide with poor nutrition and lifestyle factors, can have a genuinely destructive effect on mental well-being.
Good oral hygiene, irregular consumption of free sugar, limiting alcohol and eliminating tobacco, alongside regular dental visits are essential to securing good oral and overall health. Adopting positive habits like daily interdental cleaning or chewing sugar-free gum after meals – which also has stress-busting properties – are small yet vital steps towards securing a healthy body and mind.
A full 360-degree preventative strategy for mental health must consider all these factors to be truly effective. This could involve more focus on maintaining green spaces in cities, introducing healthier food in school and office canteens, or offering advice on ‘digital hygiene’ to young people to inform and be in control of their social media usage.
These well-being strategies may seem disparate, yet all contribute to the same goal: to create a culture of well-being which gives people the knowledge, resources, and skills they need to live happier lives.
It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child, and it may also be true that it takes a whole culture to keep its individual members healthy, happy, integrated, and supported. The work of building this culture should start now.