Mental Health Q&A with a school in Portugal

Today I did a Live Online Q&A with a school in Oporto, Portugal. Some of the questions were quite complex and deep and were about the causes of mental illness, with the word “depression” cropping up a few times. So, in advance of World Mental Health Day tomorrow, I wanted to say a few things here to help clarify my answers.

What are mental illness and mental health?

Having a bad day or week or month does not mean you have bad mental health. Anyone can have bad times – often because they are dealing with difficult or sad things in their lives. It’s natural and healthy to feel sad or worried or frightened or upset or stressed when we go through bad experiences. And lots of bad experiences can mount up and make us feel really low (or angry or anxious or negative in some way.)

We sometimes feel low or down without knowing why. I might just feel gloomy or have a day when I can’t feel positive about anything. That’s normal.

Sometimes our feelings of being “down” – and those days when we might say “I feel really depressed” – last for longer than a few days. Sometime they are hard to brush off. If you know the reason, and if the reason still exists, it’s natural for negative feelings to continue for a while. (You can still ask for help.) But what if the feelings continue and you don’t know why? What if you are feeling sad or angry or emotional or very anxious for no obvious reason and these feelings dominate your days and even your nights?

That’s when your negative feelings might have become what we call a “clinical” illness (clinical means “diagnosed by a medical expert and requiring treatment”), such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Sometimes they might tip into an eating disorder.

Why do they happen?

Sometimes, those conditions are triggered by really bad things that happen to us – or maybe lots of smaller bad things. (But many people have bad things happening to them but don’t become ill.) Sometimes they are triggered by something invisible inside our brain, such as too much or too little of some brain chemicals. Sometimes there’s a genetic link and we inherit tendencies from a parent. We can’t always tell why a mental illness has begun. What we do know is that it’s not your fault if this happens to you.

Why do some people become mentally ill and others don’t?

We can’t really say why some people become ill and others don’t. Everyone is different. Here are some things that might make a difference:

  • A bad early start in life – this might make mental health more difficult later
  • All your experiences and what has happened around you since you were born – we learn from everything we experience and you might have learnt positive or negative things
  • Genetic inheritance
  • Hormones and brain chemicals
  • Support from friends or family
  • Personality – some people are more anxious and more sensitive (Being sensitive is good because it means you care! But sometimes it can make you feel hurt more easily.)
  • Luck
  • It could be a mixture of everything!

Fundamentals of readaxation or reading for pleasure and wellbeingHow can we keep our mental health good?

  • Have a good lifestyle by a) eating a varied, great diet b) having daily physical activity, especially outdoors  c) getting the best sleep we can and d) having daily relaxation
  • Build great friendships – you don’t need lots of friends but you need to value the ones you have
  • Notice early signs that you’re struggling and take a break from the problem – for example, step away from an argument on social media
  • Keep away from people or behaviour that drags you down
  • Read for pleasure – it’s a great way to escape and relax
  • Talk about your problems to someone you trust
  • Don’t wait for a problem or worry to get too bad – the earlier you take action, the easier your recovery
  • Don’t be afraid of feeling sad, angry or frightened: these are natural, positive responses and there is nothing wrong with them
  • But if your sadness, anger or fears are dominating your life and you can’t shake them off, talk to someone you trust

I recommend Positively Teenage to keep you brilliantly mentally healthy. If you click that link, you’ll find some other tips, too.

Thank you to The British School Porto for inviting me and for your great questions! I’m sorry I didn’t get to all of them but if there were any you’d like to ask me again, your teachers can collect them and send them to me. If there was anything in my answers that worried you, DO talk to a trusted adult – or ask me for clarification!

I wish you all the very best health.

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